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Epps v. Williams

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Greenville Division

November 2, 2017

Elbert L. Epps, Plaintiff,
Sgt. Ms. Williams, Defendant.


          Kevin F. McDonald United States Magistrate Judge.

         The plaintiff, a state prisoner in the South Carolina Department of Corrections (“SCDC”), who is proceeding pro se, brought this action seeking relief pursuant to Title 42, United States Code, Section 1983. Pursuant to the provisions of Title 28, United States Code, Section 636(b)(1)(B), and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(d) (D.S.C.), this magistrate judge is authorized to review all pretrial matters in cases filed under Section 1983 and submit findings and recommendations to the district court.


         In his complaint filed October 13, 2016, the plaintiff alleges that the defendant Ms. Williams, a corrections officer at SCDC's Lee Correctional Institution, closed a cell door flap on his hand and then failed to take him to the medical unit for his resulting injuries (doc. 1, comp. p. 4-5). The plaintiff thereafter filed an amended complaint, restating his medical allegations and specifically claiming an Eighth Amendment violation of excessive force and state law claims of assault and battery (doc. 39, am. comp. ¶¶ 7-8). On June 30, 2017, Officer Williams filed an answer raising various defenses, including the affirmative defense of the plaintiff's failure to exhaust administrative remedies (doc. 40). On July 24, 2017, Officer Williams filed an amended motion for summary judgment (doc. 41). On July 25, 2017, pursuant to Roseboro v. Garrison, 528 F.2d 309 (4th Cir. 1975), the plaintiff was advised of the summary judgment procedure and the possible consequences if he failed to respond adequately (doc. 42). The plaintiff timely filed a response in opposition to summary judgment (doc. 45). On August 22, 2017, the undersigned ordered Officer Williams to provide additional information in reply to matters raised by the plaintiff in his response. Specifically, Officer Williams was directed to (1) respond to the plaintiff's claim that no incident report was prepared following the incident, and, if an incident report was prepared, provide a copy of it; (2) respond to the plaintiff's claim that he did not receive a response to the grievance form he submitted on January 27, 2016 (the form submitted bears no signature by the plaintiff showing he received the response (doc. 41-1 at 5)); and (3) respond to the plaintiff's claim that he is unfamiliar with the grievance process and provide any relevant documents (doc. 48). Officer Williams filed a reply to the order on August 29, 2017, (1) providing the requested incident report; (2) explaining why the plaintiff's signature did not appear on the grievance response; and (3) providing affidavit testimony that all admitted inmates are instructed on the SCDC grievance system (doc. 50).


         The plaintiff is a state inmate formerly housed in the Special Management Unit at Lee Correctional Institution, where the incident at issue occurred. He describes himself as illiterate and classified as mentally ill (doc. 39-1, pl. aff. ¶¶ 3-4). In his amended complaint, he alleges that on December 22, 2015, Officer Williams came to his cell to collect his food tray. As he passed the tray to her through a flap in the cell door, she allegedly slammed the flap against his hand and wrist. When he screamed, she slammed it down again, causing bleeding and extreme pain. After he dislodged his arm, he claims that Officer Williams failed to notify the medical staff on his behalf, but that his mental health counselor was nearby and did so (doc. 39, am. comp. ¶¶ 4-7). He further alleges that shortly thereafter, he made several requests to the prison staff seeking assistance with filling out a grievance form, but when no assistance was provided, he completed a Step 1 grievance form and submitted it “as best as I understood how to do it” (doc. 39-1, pl. aff. ¶ 8). He claims that he “was not notified by anyone at the prison that my Step 1 grievance had been sent back to me with instructions to list a requested action. The institutional Inmate Grievance Coordinator Ms. Johnson did not ever contact me about this defect in my grievance, or else I would have corrected the error” (id. ¶ 9).

         Officer Williams denies that she intentionally closed the door flap on the plaintiff's arm, but was instead trying to secure the flap when the plaintiff stuck his arm out. She gave him several directives to pull his arm back, and as he did, she closed the flap, catching his arm. Contrary to the plaintiff's contention that he was not charged in the incident, Officer Williams prepared an incident report against him for refusing to obey orders and evading a security device (doc. 50-1, Williams aff. ¶¶ 4-6; doc. 50-2).

         In support of her motion for summary judgment, and in response to the court's order for additional information, Officer Williams presents the affidavit and supplemental affidavit of Sherman L. Anderson, who is employed with the SCDC's Office of General Counsel - Chief Inmate Grievance Branch (docs. 41-2, 50-3). Mr. Anderson describes a three step process through which an inmate must attempt to resolve his grievance within SCDC (doc. 41-2, Anderson aff. ¶ 4) and states that all inmates are instructed on how to use SCDC's Inmate Grievance System upon initial entry as an inmate (doc. 50-3, Anderson supp. aff. ¶ 6). He states that while this three step process allows inmates to have their concerns addressed internally at least three times, the plaintiff failed to follow this procedure (doc. 41-2, Anderson aff. ¶ 3). Mr. Anderson points out that the plaintiff submitted a Step 1 grievance reciting the incident, but that he failed to request that any action be taken (id.; doc. 50-4). The grievance form was then returned to the plaintiff with an explanation that it was incomplete since no action was requested. The plaintiff was also provided with instructions on how to complete and submit a new grievance. A review of the returned grievance form shows that it does not contain the plaintiff's signature as having been received back in response (doc. 50-4, pp. 4-5). However, Mr. Anderson states that the form was in fact returned to the plaintiff as evidenced by the dated signature of L. Johnson, the Inmate Grievance Coordinator. He explains that “when a grievance is returned unprocessed to an inmate wherein they did not appropriately complete the grievance form, it is not required that an inmate sign for receiving the grievance response” (doc. 50-3, Anderson supp. aff. ¶ 4). While the plaintiff states in an earlier affidavit that he never received the returned form (doc. 39-1, pl. aff. ¶ 9), he later states in his response in opposition to summary judgment that he “did not send a new grievance [because] I cannot read good” (doc. 45, ¶ 1).


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 states, as to a party who has moved for summary judgment: “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). As to the first of these determinations, a fact is deemed “material” if proof of its existence or nonexistence would affect the disposition of the case under the applicable law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). An issue of material fact is “genuine” if the evidence offered is such that a reasonable jury might return a verdict for the non-movant. Id. at 257. In determining whether a genuine issue has been raised, the court must construe all inferences and ambiguities against the movant and in favor of the non-moving party. United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962).

         The party seeking summary judgment shoulders the initial burden of demonstrating to the district court that there is no genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). Once the movant has made this threshold demonstration, the non-moving party, to survive the motion for summary judgment, may not rest on the allegations averred in his pleadings; rather, he must demonstrate that specific, material facts exist that give rise to a genuine issue. Id. at 324. Under this standard, the existence of a mere scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position is insufficient to withstand the summary judgment motion. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. Likewise, conclusory allegations or denials, without more, are insufficient to preclude the granting of the summary judgment motion. Id. at 248. “Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted.” Id.

         In her motion for summary judgment, Officer Williams argues that the plaintiff has failed to exhaust his administrative remedies prior to commencing this action. This court agrees. The Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), Pub. L. No. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321 (codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a) (1996)), mandates, among other things, that prisoners exhaust their administrative remedies prior to filing civil actions concerning prison conditions under Section 1983 or any other federal law. See Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 211 (2007) (“There is no question that exhaustion is mandatory under the PLRA and that unexhausted claims cannot be brought in court”). “[T]he PLRA's exhaustion requirement is mandatory, ” Anderson v. XYZ Corr. Health Servs., Inc., 407 F.3d 674, 677 (4th Cir. 2005), and “applies to all inmate suits about prison life, whether they involve general circumstances or particular episodes, and whether they allege excessive force or some other wrong.” Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 532 (2002). Although PLRA exhaustion is not jurisdictional, failure to exhaust is an affirmative defense that can be pleaded by the defendants. Jones, 549 U.S. at 216; Anderson, 407 F.3d at 681. “[U]nexhausted claims cannot be brought in court.” Jones, 549 U.S. at 211. “Requiring exhaustion allows prison officials an opportunity to resolve disputes concerning the exercise of their responsibilities before being haled into court.” Id. at 204. It also has the “potential to reduce the number of inmate suits, and also to improve the quality of suits that are filed by producing a useful administrative record.” Id.

         The PLRA requires “proper exhaustion” of available administrative remedies prior to filing suit. Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 93-94 (2006). As the Supreme Court noted, “[a]ggrieved parties may prefer not to exhaust administrative remedies for a variety of reasons, ” whether it be concerns about efficiency or “bad faith.” Id. at 89-90. This is especially true in a prison context. Id. at 90 n.1. Nevertheless, “[p]roper exhaustion demands compliance with an agency's deadlines and other critical procedural rules because no adjudicative system can function effectively without imposing some orderly structure on the course of its proceedings.” Id. at 90-91.

         On January 27, 2016, the plaintiff filed a Step 1 grievance, stating: “the 12/22/15 between 3:30 or 4:00 p.m. Sgt. Williams close my arm in the flap it take the staff 6:15 p.m. to take me to medical because mental health Ms. Fox told the staff call medical” (doc. 50-4). However, the plaintiff failed to fill out the next section of the form that asks for the “action requested” to be taken as a result of the incident. In a response section entitled “Warden's Decision and Reason, ” the typed response states that “. . . this grievance is being returned to you due to the fact you failed to complete the grievance form in its entirety. You have not listed an action requested. This information is needed in order to process your grievance appropriately. If you wish to submit a new grievance on this issue, it must be received no later than 02/09/16 . . . .” (id.). Under the typed entry is the signature of L. Johnson, Lee Correctional's Inmate Grievance Coordinator, dated 2/2/16, indicating that the form was returned to the plaintiff (doc. 50-3, ...

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