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Ninth Circuit: Grievance Policy May Excuse Oregon Prisoner’s Failure to Exhaust Administrative Remedies

by Jacob Barrett

On October 12, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit vacated dismissal of an Oregon prisoner’s civil rights claims for failure to exhaust administrative remedies available in the state Department of Corrections (DOC), as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. Because DOC policy limited the number of grievances that could be filed, its delay in processing them created a catch-22 that excused the prisoner’s failure to exhaust, the Court said.

Aaron Dale Eaton, a prisoner housed at the Two Rivers Correctional Facility (TRCF), received mail with a form to file a claim in an ongoing bankruptcy case involving sexual abuse settlements by the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). The mailing included a postage prepaid return envelope from his attorney. Eaton had a time limit to fill out the form in order to file a claim in the BSA bankruptcy proceeding.

For “safety concerns,” DOC mail policy prohibited prisoners from receiving postage prepaid mail inserts, like the stamped envelope Eaton’s attorney sent. The mailing was thus intercepted. TRCI administrators later gave the envelope to Eaton after determining it was authorized legal mail because it was sent by an attorney

But as a consequence of the delay, Eaton asserted, he missed his opportunity to file a claim against BSA. He then attempted to file a prison grievance. But DOC administrative rules limit prisoners to no more than four grievances pending at the same time. In addition, each grievance is restricted to a single incident. Eaton was informed he already had four pending grievances and would have to dismiss one of them to file a new one – giving up any hope of relief on that issue, if he wanted to complain about the mail violation.

Complicating the situation was the fact that Eaton’s grievances had backed up only because prison officials failed to timely respond to them, as required by their own policy. Had they followed that policy and responded to Eaton’s previous grievances, he could have filed the grievance challenging the confiscation of the postage pre-paid envelope.

Eaton then filed suit in federal court for the District of Oregon against DOC and its officials at TCRI. Proceeding under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, he alleged that confiscation of the envelope from his legal mail violated his First Amendment rights.The district court found Eaton had stated a viable First Amendment claim. Nevertheless it dismissed the case because Eaton had not exhausted the available administrative remedies as required PLRA. Eaton appealed.

On review, the Ninth Circuit held that forcing Eaton to choose between pursuing his mail-related grievance or forfeiting his other equally viable claims created a “‘Catch 22’ dilemma from which there is no escape.”

“Because prison officials created the situation,” the Court said, “their otherwise reasonable regulations operated to deny him access to the grievance process.”

The Court rejected the DOC’s argument that Eaton was in a Catch-22 only because he refused to dismiss one of his earlier grievances. Forcing him to dismiss one grievance to pursue another, the Court said, would also force Eaton to choose between constitutional claims. Citing Hebbe v. Pliler, 627 F.3d 338 (9th Cir. 2010), the Court said that prisoners “cannot be forced to sacrifice one constitutionally protected right solely because another is respected.”

Accordingly, the district court’s order was vacated and the case remanded. Eaton was represented at the Court by attorneys from the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center in San Francisco and Washington, DC. See: Eaton v. Blewett, 50 F.4th 1240 (9th Cir. 2022).

The case has now returned to the district court, where Eaton is represented by Hilsboro attorney Katharine Edwards. PLN will continue updating developments as they are available. See: Eaton v. Blewett, USDC (D. Or.), Case No. 2:20-cv-01641.

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