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Seventh Circuit: Low IQ and Segregation Placement May Render Administrative Remedies Unavailable to Indiana Prisoner

by David M. Reutter

On February 3, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reinstated an Indiana prisoner’s civil rights complaint that had been dismissed because he failed to exhaust administrative remedies, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. The Court found the prisoner’s low IQ and his placement in segregation may have rendered those remedies unavailable.

Howard Smallwood was found unresponsive in his cell at Pendleton Correctional Facility on October 22, 2017. He was taken to the prison medical unit and treated for a presumed drug overdose with two doses of Narcan. When he awoke, Smallwood denied taking any drugs and reminded the nurse he was a diabetic and had been similarly found unresponsive before.

Dr. Paul Talbot, however, ordered urinalysis screening for drugs. It came back negative. Talbot then ordered a blood test to further screen for drugs. Smallwood refused, but guards told him he had no choice. When Smallwood resisted, guards allegedly “twisted his hands and wrists, placed him in a head lock, and held a taser to his chest while they placed him in restraints,” the Court recalled, before “[t]hey then forced Smallwood into a chair and held him down while a lab technician drew his blood.” That blood draw also came back negative for drug use.

After the blood draw, Smallwood alleged guards took him to “an observation cell where they threw him onto a bed, placed him in a chokehold, pulled his shirt over his head, and punched him.” Guards “then pulled Smallwood’s pants down, placed a knee on his back, and inserted a cold object into his rectum.”

Smallwood filed a grievance about these events, but it was undisputed that he did not properly make use of the state Department of Corrections (DOC) Offender Grievance Process. Specifically, his grievance was denied for failing to first attempt to informally resolve the matter. So when he filed a pro se civil rights complaint over the incident against prison officials with DOC and its private healthcare contractors, Wexford Health Sources, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

Smallwood appealed, and the Seventh Circuit began by noting that PLRA requires prisoners to exhaust administrative remedies before bringing a civil rights action in federal court. Those remedies, however, must be available, the Court continued, quoting Lanaghan v. Loch, 902 F.3d 683 (7th Cir. 2018), to call that determination a “fact-specific inquiry.”

In Smallwood’s case, it was undisputed that he had an IQ of 75, that he was placed in restrictive housing following the incident, where he was “without access to the assistance of writers on whom he usually depended during the time period in which the grievance had to be filed.” Between 2005 and 2020, he attempted to file 21 grievances, navigating none of them successfully to exhaustion. Besides this, prison officials were also on notice that Smallwood would find the procedures “difficult to read,” according to the Flesch Reading Ease Score.

The Seventh Circuit noted that even prison officials were confused by their rules, arguing in rejecting Smallwood’s grievance and during this litigation that all his claims had to informally be resolved through the grievance procedure. Yet as Smallwood’s appointed appellate counsel pointed out, the Grievance Procedure does not require informal resolution for sexual assault, and there are no time limits to bring such a grievance. 

Therefore the Court said it could not determine as a matter of law on the current record that Defendants met their burden in asserting their affirmative defense that the grievance process was available to Smallwood. The case was remanded with instruction to hold a Pavey hearing to resolve the factual disputes, as laid out in Pavey v. Conley, 544 F.3d 739 (7th Cir. 2008).

Smallwood was represented before the Court by attorneys Rosalind E. Dillon and Daniel Greenfield with the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center in Chicago and Washington, DC, respectively. See: Smallwood v. Williams, 59 F.4th 306 (7th Cir. 2023).

The case has returned to the district court, where Smallwood has picked up counsel from attorneys Kevin May and Lee Stark with Neal Gerber & Eisenberg LLP in Chicago. PLN will report updates as they are available. See: Smallwood v. Williams, USDC (S.D.Ind.), Case No. 1:20-cv-00404.