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State v. South Carolina Department of Corrections

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

January 24, 2019

John State; David Warrick; James Hardin; Jerry Brunson; Jarvis Jeter; Kevin Micheal Anderson; Maurice Burgess; Stafford Kearse; Justin Rose; Kewayne Lee; Curtis Scott; Anthony Glenn; Matthew Franks Thomas; and Christopher Montgomery, Plaintiffs,
South Carolina Department of Corrections; Warden Willie Eagleton, individually and/or in his official capacity as warden of Evans Correctional Institution; and Associate Warden Annie Sellers, individually and/or in her official capacity as associate warden of Evans Correctional Institution; Major Charles West, SCDC Correctional Officer, individually and/or in his official capacity as an employee of SCDC, Defendants.



         The plaintiffs, who were all state prisoners during the relevant time period and who are represented by counsel, filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the named defendants. This matter is before the court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2) (D.S.C.) for a Report and Recommendation on the defendants' motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. (ECF No. 28.) The plaintiffs filed a response in opposition (ECF No. 46), and the defendants replied (ECF No. 55). Having reviewed the parties' submissions and the applicable law, the court finds that the defendants' motion (ECF No. 28) should be granted in part and denied in part.


         During the relevant period of this action, the plaintiffs were inmates at Evans Correctional Institution (“ECI”), a state prison within the South Carolina Department of Corrections (“SCDC”). As more fully detailed below, during his incarceration at ECI, each plaintiff was allegedly assaulted on one or more occasions by other inmates. In their Complaint, as amended, the plaintiffs raise various claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as well as state law claims. (ECF No. 15.)


         A. Applicable Standards

         A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) examines the legal sufficiency of the facts alleged on the face of the complaint. Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243 (4th Cir. 1999). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). The “complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.' ” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). A claim is facially plausible when the factual content allows the court to reasonably infer that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Id. When considering a motion to dismiss, the court must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). The court “may also consider documents attached to the complaint, see Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(c), as well as those attached to the motion to dismiss, so long as they are integral to the complaint and authentic.” Philips v. Pitt Cty. Mem'l Hosp., 572 F.3d 176, 180 (4th Cir. 2009) (citing Blankenship v. Manchin, 471 F.3d 523, 526 n.1 (4th Cir. 2006)).

         Under Rule 56, summary judgment is appropriate only if the moving party “shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the [moving party] is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A party may support or refute that a material fact is not disputed by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record” or by “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). Rule 56 mandates entry of summary judgment “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

         In deciding whether there is a genuine issue of material fact, the evidence of the non-moving party is to be believed and all justifiable inferences must be drawn in favor of the non-moving party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). However, “[o]nly 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. at 248. The moving party has the burden of proving that summary judgment is appropriate. Once the moving party makes this showing, however, the opposing party may not rest upon mere allegations or denials, but rather must, by affidavits or other means permitted by the Rule, set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c), (e); Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322.

         B. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

         The defendants argue that the plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies with regard to their claims.[1] A prisoner must exhaust his administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), specifically 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). Section 1997e(a) provides that “[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 of this title, or any other Federal law, by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.” This requirement “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). Generally, to satisfy this requirement, a plaintiff must avail himself of every level of available administrative review. See Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731 (2001); but see Ross v. Blake, 136 S.Ct. 1850 (2016) (describing limited circumstances where exhaustion may be excused). Those remedies neither need to meet federal standards, nor are they required to be plain, speedy, and effective. Porter, 534 U.S. at 524 (quoting Booth, 532 U.S. at 739). Satisfaction of the exhaustion requirement requires “using all steps that the agency holds out, and doing so properly.” Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 90 (2006) (quoting Pozo v. McCaughtry, 286 F.3d 1022, 1024 (7th Cir. 2002)). Thus, “it is the prison's requirements, and not the PLRA, that define the boundaries of proper exhaustion.” Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 218 (2007). The defendant has the burden of establishing that a plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. See Custis v. Davis, 851 F.3d 358, 361 (4th Cir. 2017) (quoting Moore v. Bennette, 517 F.3d 717, 725 (4th Cir. 2008)).

         Pursuant to South Carolina Department of Corrections policy (see SCDC Policy GA-01.12 “Inmate Grievance System”, ECF No. 46-1), an inmate seeking to complain of prison conditions generally must first attempt to informally resolve his complaint. Next, an inmate may file a “Step 1 Grievance” with designated prison staff. If the Step 1 Grievance is denied, the inmate may appeal to the warden of his facility via a “Step 2 Grievance.” Moreover, subject to certain exceptions not applicable here, review from the South Carolina Administrative Law Court (“ALC”), a state executive-branch tribunal, is generally part of the available administrative remedies an inmate must exhaust. S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-500 (“There is created the South Carolina Administrative Law Court, which is an agency and court of record within the executive branch of the government of this State.”) (emphasis added); see Furtick v. S.C. Dep't of Corr., 649 S.E.2d 35, 38 (S.C. 2007) (reaffirming that “the ALC has jurisdiction over all inmate grievance appeals that have been properly filed”) (citing Slezak v. S.C. Dep't of Corr., 605 S.E.2d 506 (S.C. 2004)); (SCDC Policy GA-01.12 “Inmate Grievance System” at § 13.9, ECF No. 46-1 at 9-10).

         The law is clear that exhaustion is a prerequisite to suit and must be completed prior to filing an action. Anderson v. XYZ Corr. Health Servs., Inc., 407 F.3d 674, 676-77 (4th Cir. 2005); see, e.g., Page v. Paduly, No. 9:09-cv-0952-RMG-BM, 2010 WL 4365644, at *1 (D.S.C. Oct. 28, 2010) (finding that a plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies where he either did not properly pursue a grievance concerning the issues raised in the case prior to filing the lawsuit, or did not even file grievances until after the lawsuit had already commenced); Cabbagestalk v. Ozmint, C/A No. 9:06-3005-MBS, 2007 WL 2822927, at *1 (D.S.C. Sept. 27, 2007) (noting that the court must look to the time of filing-not the time the district court is rendering its decision-to determine if exhaustion has occurred); see also Jackson v. Dist. of Columbia, 254 F.3d 262, 269 (D.C. Cir. 2001) (rejecting the argument that § 1997e(a) “permits suit to be filed so long as administrative remedies are exhausted before trial”); Freeman v. Francis, 196 F.3d 641, 645 (6th Cir. 1999) (holding a prisoner “may not exhaust administrative remedies during the pendency of the federal suit”).

         The only recognized exception to the PLRA's requirement to exhaust administrative remedies stems from the statutory language itself: an inmate need not pursue administrative remedies if they are not “available.” Ross, 136 S.Ct. at 1858; see also Moore, 517 F.3d at 725 (“[A]n administrative remedy is not considered to have been available if a prisoner, through no fault of his own, was prevented from availing himself of it.”). However, “a prisoner does not exhaust all available remedies simply by failing to follow the required steps so that remedies that once were available to him no longer are.” Moore, 517 F.3d at 725 (citing Woodford, 548 U.S. 81).

         The PLRA's exhaustion requirement is a robust one. See Ross, 136 S.Ct. at 1856-58. Prisoners must therefore diligently and properly follow the administrative procedures that are available. See Woodford, 548 U.S. at 90. Drawing on the statutory language, Ross instructs that a finding that administrative remedies were unavailable should be rare and identifies three ways to show unavailability.[2] In the first scenario, a prisoner may show-with evidence, not conjecture-that the procedures operate as a dead end because officers are unable or consistently unwilling to provide any relief to aggrieved inmates. See Ross, 136 S.Ct. at 1859 (“When the facts on the ground demonstrate that no such potential exists, the inmate has no obligation to exhaust the remedy.); Booth, 532 U.S. at 736 (suggesting that a remedial scheme is available where the administrative process has authority to take some action in response to a complaint). The examples provided in Ross to invoke this method of demonstrating unavailability contemplate that a deficiency of this type would be systemic or widespread, or at least not isolated. See Ross, 136 S.Ct. at 1859 (giving the following examples of when an administrative remedy is a dead end: when a prison handbook directs inmates to submit their grievances to a particular administrative office, but in practice that office disclaims authority to consider them; or when administrative officials have apparent authority but decline ever to exercise it).

         Alternatively, a prisoner may demonstrate unavailability by showing that, in his particular case, prison officials thwarted his efforts to take advantage of the grievance process through machination, misrepresentation, or intimidation. Ross, 136 S.Ct. at 1860. Again, the Ross Court provided some examples of the “rare” circumstances where this showing can be met. Id. at n.3 (citing cases where correctional facilities staff misled the inmate about the existence of a process or its rules; used threats or intimidation; or misled him into thinking he had done everything necessary to use the process). Therefore, Ross seems to require that, to prevail on an assertion that prison officials thwarted his efforts to exhaust, an inmate must be able to demonstrate something more than isolated negligence on behalf of prison officials. Id. at 1860 (discussing machination, misrepresentation, or intimidation).

         These parameters guide the court's application of the law to the facts presented as to each plaintiff.

         1. Plaintiffs Jeter, Lee, and Glenn

         In their reply, the defendants concede that Plaintiffs Jeter, Lee, and Glenn exhausted their administrative remedies and withdraw their motion as to exhaustion. (ECF No. 55 at 3.) Accordingly, the claims raised by these plaintiffs should proceed.

         2. Plaintiffs Thomas, Scott, Anderson, Warrick, and Brunson

         Plaintiffs Thomas, Scott, Anderson, and Warrick argue that they are no longer inmates and therefore not subject to the PLRA's exhaustion requirement. (Pl.'s Resp. Opp'n Summ. J., ECF No. 46 at 32.) The PLRA's exhaustion requirement is not applicable if the complaint is filed after the plaintiff is released from prison. Cofield v. Bowser, 247 Fed.Appx. 413, 414 (4th Cir. 2007) (“A former inmate who has been released is no longer ‘incarcerated or detained' for the purposes of § 1997e(h) and therefore does not qualify as a ‘prisoner' subject to the PLRA.”) (citing Norton v. City of Marietta, 432 F.3d 1145, 1150 (10th Cir. 2005)). The defendants concede this argument as to these plaintiffs only, and withdraw their motion as to them. (ECF No. 55 at 2.)

         Although Plaintiff Brunson raises this argument as well, the defendants argue that, even though Brunson is no longer an inmate, he was a prisoner as defined by the PLRA at the time the complaint was filed. See Cofield, 247 Fed.Appx. at 413 (“[I]t is the plaintiff's status at the time he filed the lawsuit that is determinative as to whether the § 1997e(a) exhaustion requirement applies.”). In support of their argument, the defendants provide a Bed History Report and affidavit testimony that indicates Brunson was released from the SCDC system in March 2018. (ECF No. 63-14 at 1; Anderson Suppl. Aff. ¶ 3, ECF No. 63-7 at 2.) Review of the docket shows that the Amended Complaint was filed in state court on November 1, 2017, was removed to this court on December 8, 2017, and was further amended on January 9, 2018. Accordingly, the record indisputably shows that Brunson was subject to the exhaustion requirements of the PLRA, and his arguments as to exhaustion will therefore be addressed below. See infra B.5 at 14-16.

         3. Plaintiff Montgomery

         Plaintiff Montgomery's allegations stem from a stabbing assault that occurred on July 2, 2017. (2d Am. Compl.¶¶ 239-49, ECF No. 15 at 22-23.) In response to the defendants' argument that he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, Montgomery provides affidavit testimony in which he avers:

. . . I wrote to Warden Eagleton on July 8, 2017 on a Request to Staff form after I was stabbed on July 2, 2017 but not found for 2 days. I complained that I wanted to be transferred. I never got a response from Warden Eagleton and then forty-five (45) days passed so I filed a Step 1 grievance but could not attach the [Request to Staff] because it was never returned to me. I never got a response to the Step 1 [grievance] so I could not file a Step 2 grievance. The instructions on the back of the Step 1 tells me that I need to get an answer to the Step 1 grievance before I can file a Step 2 grievance.
After I did not get anything back, I filed another Step 1 grievance. I finally got an answer to that Step 1 and was told that the grievance was forwarded to police services but that they returned the grievance stating that an investigation was not warranted. I then filed a Step 2 grievance and that grievance was denied.

(Montgomery Aff. ¶¶ 19-20, ECF No. 46-19 at 4-5.)

         In reply, the defendants provide countering affidavit testimony that SCDC has no record of the specific request to staff that Montgomery avers he filed. (Anderson Suppl. Aff. ¶ 14, ECF No. 64 at 9.) They also argue that, even if Montgomery had filed a request to staff, he waited considerably longer than forty-five days before filing his Step 1 grievance on October 9, 2017.[3] (Id. ¶ 15.) Although the record does not appear to contain the full content of Montgomery's October 9, 2017 Step 1 grievance, [4] review of SCDC's computer summary indicates that Montgomery “wants an investigation into the unprofessionalism displayed by Evans Correctional Staff when he was stabbed on 7/2/17 and assaulted again on 9/27/17.” (ECF No. 64-4 at 4.) It appears that this grievance was forwarded to “police services” for an ...

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