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Fourth Circuit Reinstates North Carolina Prisoner’s Suit, Finding Grievance Procedure Availability an Open Question

By Mark Wilson

On December 27, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated summary judgment issued against a North Carolina prisoner for failing to exhaust his administrative remedies, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. Finding factual disputes regarding the availability of the prison grievance system, the Court called the lower court’s ruling “erroneously premature and otherwise flawed.”

Soon after his transfer to the state’s Central Prison, Matthew James Griffin filed a grievance requesting a Kosher diet on October 27, 2015. Prison officials accepted his grievance on October 29, 2015, and placed him on a Kosher diet the next day. Yet the grievance was not removed from the system.

State prisoners are barred from having more than one grievance pending, unless it is under review by the Secretary of the state Department of Public Safety, the last step in a three-step grievance process. The procedure also expressly states that “if at any level of the administrative remedy process, including the final level, the inmate does not receive a response within the time provided for reply ... the absence of a response shall be deemed a denial of that level, which the inmate may appeal.”

Griffin also suffers vision impairments that leave him at heightened risk of falling. He was initially assigned to a handicap-accessible cell and restricted to a bottom bunk. But on November 22, 2015, he was assigned to a prison hospital cell that did not comply with the Americans with Disabilities (ADA), 42 U.S.C. ch. 126 § 12101 et seq. His complaints about that were denied, he said. In fact, on November 26, 2015, prison nurse Nadine Bryant threatened to have Griffin involuntarily medicated if he did not stop complaining about his need for ADA-compliant housing. Griffin persisted, and early the next morning Bryant made good on her threat. She and other staffers entered Griffin’s cell, forced him to the floor and involuntarily sedated him. When he awoke later, he was unsupervised, and fell, striking his head and dislocating his left shoulder.

Griffin grieved the involuntary sedation that same day. But the grievance was rejected because his earlier Kosher diet grievance had never been formally resolved, so the “one-grievance-at-a-time” rule barred Griffin from filing his sedation grievance.

He filed another grievance on January 4, 2016, alleging inadequate medical care. Unlike the involuntary sedation grievance, this one was accepted for processing even though the Kosher diet grievance still remained pending. When prison officials denied it on January 12, 2016, Griffin appealed. On February 5, 2016, prison officials finally forwarded the pending Kosher diet grievance to a Step 2 appeal – even though its requested relief had already been granted – notifying Griffin on February 10, 2016. He then appealed that to Step 3.

Meanwhile, prison officials failed to respond to the medical care grievance within 20 days by February 10, 2016. When they issued a response two weeks later, on February 24, 2016, Griffin took that to a Step 3 appeal. Since at that point he no longer had any grievance pending at Step 1 or 2, he was also able to resubmit the sedation grievance. Except the 90-day time limit had expired one day earlier. Griffin resubmitted it anyway on April 29, 2016, but it was rejected.

On June 30, 2017, Griffin brought suit pro se in federal court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, alleging that prison officials violated his constitutional rights by involuntarily sedating him, retaliating against him for making ADA complaints and leaving him unsupervised after sedating him. Prison officials moved to dismiss for failure to exhaust administrative remedies as required by PLRA. The district court converted that into a motion for summary judgment and granted it, agreeing with Defendants that Griffin failed to exhaust his remedies.

On appeal, with appointed counsel for Griffin provided by attorneys from the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center in Washington, D.C., the Fourth Circuit reversed, concluding that “the district court prematurely awarded summary judgment to the Central Prison defendants on the basis that administrative remedies remained available to Griffin.”

“To be sure,” the Court continued, “Griffin makes a compelling case that the grievance procedure’s overlapping rules and deadlines presented him with ‘a simple dead end,’ that the facts invite at least an inference of ‘thwarting’ and ‘machinations’ by prison officials, and even that, in the words of the Supreme Court [in Ross v. Blake, 578 U.S. 632 (2016)], ‘no ordinary prisoner can discern or navigate’ the grievance procedure because it is ‘so opaque.’”

 “Nevertheless,” the Court concluded, “an abundance of loose ends feed [sic] into the question of whether administrative remedies were functionally available to Griffin.” Accordingly, summary judgment was vacated and the case remanded for a determination on that availability. See: Griffin v. Bryant, 56 F.4th 328 (4th Cir. 2022).

The case has returned to the district court, where Griffin is once more proceeding pro se, though he has requested appointed counsel. PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Griffin v. Bryant, USDC (E.D.N.C.), Case No. 5:17-ct-03173.  

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