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Seventh Circuit Allows Illinois Prisoner to Prove Administrative Remedy Was “Unavailable” in Double-Celling Complaint

by David M. Reutter

On December 14, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit took up the latest in a “slew” of cases by Illinois prisoners alleging they are “housed like cattle” at Menard Correctional Center (MCC), “where cells meant for one person are routinely used to house two,” the Court recalled, “in a policy that Plaintiffs call ‘double-celling.’”

The problem traces back at least to 1980, when the federal court for the Southern District of Illinois found the amount of cell space for each prisoner – 18 to 32 square feet – was inadequate, and it issued injunctive relief.  See: Lightfoot v. Walker, 486 F. Supp. 504 (S.D. Ill. 1980). But “[w]hatever the staying power of that injunctive relief may have been,” the Seventh Circuit noted, “by 2010, inmates began filing double-celling suits against Menard once again.”

In a civil rights action filed on behalf of themselves and a putative class of fellow MCC prisoners on August 27, 2018, Corrie Wallace and Rafeal Santos “explain that these tightly packed quarters impact everything from ventilation in the cells, to inmates’ freedom to exercise, to their ability to perform legal research,” the Court continued. However, it added, “this appeal does not consider the merits of these double-celling claims.”

Rather, Wallace and Santos appealed when the district court granted defendant prison officials summary judgment on their claim that Plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. Specifically, Defendants argued and the district court agreed that “Santos never properly filed a grievance about double-celling” and that neither he “nor Wallace exhausted administrative remedies” for claims made against a quartet of staffers who weren’t even working at the prison in the sixty days before they submitted grievances – which is the statutory time limit in Illinois.

Santos claimed to file grievances that Defendants said he hadn’t, and the district court sided with Defendants on those because they presented logs that didn’t reflect any filed grievances. Finding Santos’ claim incredible based on that was not error, the Court said.

But Plaintiffs also argued that other prisoners complained about double-celling with no response, so they had no reasonable expectation that their grievance would be weighed on its merits. That gets to the heart of whether a remedy is “available,” the Court said. Granted, showing a remedy to be a “dead-end” is a tall task, but Plaintiff must be given the opportunity, so the matter was remanded for limited discovery on the issue.

Thus the district court’s order was affirmed except as to the finding that administrative remedies were available to Plaintiffs, and the case was remanded for a determination on that. Plaintiffs were represented by Maryville attorney Christian G. Montroy. See: Wallace v. Baldwin, 55 F.4th 535 (7th Cir. 2022).

Plaintiffs asked for a rehearing before the full Seventh Circuit en banc and were denied on February 2, 2023. See: Wallace v. Baldwin, 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 2913 (7th Cir.).

The case has returned to the district court, where discovery must be completed by July 10, 2023, which is Defendants’ deadline to renew their summary judgment motion. PLN will report developments as they are available. See: Wallace v. Rauner, USDC (S.D. Ill.), Case No. 3:18-cv-01513.