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Battle v. South Carolina Department of Corrections

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

February 26, 2019

Korell Battle, Darnell Brown, Jeffrey Brown, Ronnie Drake, Lance Myles, John Mack, and Jabari Moore, Plaintiffs,
v.
South Carolina Department of Corrections, Warden Cecilia Reynolds, individually and in her official capacity as Warden of Lee Correctional Institution, and Warden Aaron Joyner, individually and in his official capacity as Warden of Lee Correctional Institution, Defendants.

          ORDER

          Timothy M. Cain United States District Judge

         Plaintiffs Korell Battle, Darnell Brown, Jeffrey Brown, [1] Ronnie Drake, Lance Myles, John Mack, and Jabari Moore, state prisoners represented by counsel, filed this action alleging that while Plaintiffs were housed at the Lee Correctional Institution (“LCI”) they were assaulted by other inmates and asserting failure to protect claims against Defendants South Carolina Department of Corrections (“SCDC”), Warden Cecilia Reynolds, and Warden Aaron Joyner pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law. (ECF No. 21).[2] In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Civil Rule 73.02, D.S.C., this matter was referred to a magistrate judge for pretrial handling. Defendants filed a motion to sever (ECF No. 23) and a motion for summary judgment alleging that Plaintiffs did not exhaust their administrative remedies (ECF No. 24). Plaintiffs filed responses opposing the motions (ECF Nos. 28, 34), and Defendants filed replies (ECF Nos. 38, 49, 56). On September 25, 2018, the magistrate judge held a telephone conference on whether Plaintiffs had exhausted their administrative remedies. (ECF Nos. 52, 55). Before the court is the magistrate judge's Order and Report and Recommendation (“Report”) recommending that the court deny Defendants' summary judgment motion as to Plaintiffs Battle, Darnell Brown, Jeffrey Brown, Drake, Lyles, and Mack, and that discovery on exhaustion be allowed as to Plaintiff Moore (ECF No. 24). (ECF No. 57 at 36). Subsequently, the parties communicated to the magistrate judge that no further briefing was needed as to Moore because “it appears that there is no further evidence that would support finding that Mr. Moore's administrative remedies were unavailable. . . . ” (ECF No. 66). Therefore, in a docket text entry, the magistrate judge recommended that the court grant Defendants' summary judgment as to Plaintiff Moore for failure to exhaust his administrative remedies and dismiss Moore's claims without prejudice. Id.

         In her Report, the magistrate judge also denied Defendants' motion to sever (ECF No. 23). (ECF No. 57 at 34-35).[3] On January 9, 2019, the court entered a text order asking the parties to show cause as to why the court should not sever the claims. (ECF No. 78). The parties timely filed responses. (ECF Nos. 79 and 80).

         II. Applicable Law

         Summary judgment is appropriate only “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In deciding whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the evidence of the non-moving party is to be believed and all justifiable inferences must be drawn in his favor. 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. A litigant “cannot create a genuine issue of material fact through mere speculation or the building of one inference upon another.” Beale v. Hardy, 769 F.2d 213, 214 (4th Cir. 1985). “Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, disposition by summary judgment is appropriate.” Monahan v. Cnty. of Chesterfield, 95 F.3d 1263, 1265 (4th Cir. 1996).

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiffs were all victims of assaults by other inmates while housed at LCI.[4] Plaintiffs allege Defendants failed to protect them from the other inmates. In their Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs allege causes of action for: 1) temporary and permanent injunctive relief; 2) claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983; and 3) violations of the South Carolina Torts Claims Act -specifically alleging “a separate cause of action for each named Plaintiff and each separate incident set forth herein above.” (ECF No. 21 at 9-13).[5]

         As an initial matter, as stated above, the magistrate judge recommends that the court grant Defendants's summary judgment as to Plaintiff Moore. (ECF No. 66). Neither party has filed any objections to this recommendation.[6] Accordingly, finding no clear error, the court adopts this part of the Report, grants summary judgment to Defendants on Moore's § 1983 claims, and remands Moore's state law claims to state court.

         A. Exhaustion

         The Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”) mandates that an inmate exhaust “such administrative remedies as are available” before bringing suit under § 1983. 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a) (“No 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). Moreover, exhaustion is required even when a prisoner seeks remedies, such as money damages, that are not available in the administrative proceedings. See Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731, 740-41 (2001). To satisfy this requirement, a plaintiff must avail himself of every level of available administrative review, which means “using all steps that the agency holds out, and doing so properly.” Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 9106) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “Proper 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. “An inmate's failure to exhaust administrative remedies is an affirmative defense to be pleaded and proven by the defendant.” Anderson v. XYZ Corr. Health Servs., 407 F.3d 674, 683 (4th Cir. 2005).

         The administrative remedies are dictated by the prison. See Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 218 (2007). The parties agree that SCDC grievance procedure is as follows. An inmate seeking to complain of prison conditions must first attempt to informally resolve the complaint within eight working days of the incident by filing a Request to Staff Member form. (ECF Nos. 24-9 at 7; 34-1 at 7). Informal resolution is not required, however, when the matter involves allegations of criminal activity. Id. With respect to criminal activity complaints, the inmate must file a Step 1 grievance within five working days of the incident. Id. If the inmate's complaint is not resolved by the Request to Staff Member, an inmate must file a Step 1 grievance within five working days of receiving a response. Id. If an informal resolution is not possible, an inmate must file a Step 1 Grievance with prison staff within five working days of the incident. Id. If an inmate is not satisfied with the Step 1 response, he may appeal the Step 1 decision by filing a Step 2 grievance with the warden. Id. at 9.

         In her Report, the magistrate judge determines that Plaintiffs' failure to exhaust was not apparent from the face of the Amended Complaint (ECF No. 57 at 4), and she then addresses each Plaintiffs' claims and analyzes whether Defendants are entitled to summary judgment based on failure to exhaust, id. at 9-30. It is undisputed that Plaintiffs Drake, Jeffrey Brown, and Darnell Brown did not submit any grievances regarding their assaults. (ECF No. 57 at 9). In response to Defendants' summary judgment motion, these Plaintiffs submitted affidavits in which they aver that they were threatened and told not to file any grievances, and/or they did not file any grievances because they feared retaliation. (ECF Nos. 34-5 at 3-4; 34-7 at 2-3; 34-9 at 2-3). In reply, Defendants contend that the court should disregard these conclusory and self-serving affidavits. (ECF No. 49 at 20). Further, Defendants argue that the actions of these Plaintiffs belies their averments because these Plaintiffs have filed numerous grievances and are prolific users of the SCDC grievance system. Id. at 4, 5, 7, 19, 22. As to these Plaintiffs, the magistrate judge “finds that these Plaintiffs have shown the administrative remedy procedure was not available to them” and that the “fear of retaliation was sufficiently serious that it would deter a reasonable inmate of ordinary firmness and fortitude from lodging a grievance.” (ECF No. 57 at 12). In conclusion, she finds that “these Plaintiffs' claims should be deemed exhausted and denies summary judgment as to their claims.” Id. at 13.

         As to Plaintiff Battle, it is undisputed that he filed grievances following his assault. (ECF No. 57 at 15). Defendants, however, argue that Battle's grievances did not encompass the claims he is now raising. (ECF No. 49 at 15). On January 4, 2017, Battle submitted a Step 1 grievance stating: “I was in bed asleep, staff unlocked door without permission and 10 guys attacked me and almost kill me” and “[i]f [LCI] would have had doorknobs, no way them guys could have ran up in my room.” (ECF No. 34-10 at 3). The Associate Warden responded that the maintenance supervisor advised that doorknobs were once used when inmates had keys to their cells, but currently there are no doorknobs in any SCDC prison. Id. Battle then filed a Step 2 grievance asserting that other prisons do have doorknobs because he has spoken to other inmates who say there are still doorknobs in SCDC prisons. Id. Battle asserted that if one prison has doorknobs, all prison should have doorknobs. Id. The Associate Warden responded that the agency found it was cost effective to remove doorknobs and key locks from all cell doors Agency-wide. Id. Defendants contend that Battle successfully exhausted his administrative remedies on the use of doorknobs in the prisons. (ECF NO. 49 at 15). However, they argue that Battle did not exhaust his administrative remedies regarding his failure to protect claim. Id.

         In response to Defendants' summary judgment motion, Battle submitted an affidavit in which he avers that he believed he could not seek money damages in a grievance, “so [he] made the statement in [his] grievance that [he] thought doorknobs on the cell door would have helped prevent the attack on [him]” and that, in response, SCDC failed to address the underlying problem, which was that a correctional officer had unlocked his cell door to let his attackers into his cell. (ECF No. 43 at 2-3). He also states that he believes the grievances he filed were not kept confidential by correctional officers and, as a result, he was attacked a second time by other inmates after a transfer to McCormick Correctional Institution several months later. Id. at 2. In her Report, the magistrate judge finds that Battles's grievances satisfies the exhaustion requirement, id. at 17, and, alternatively, she finds the prison grievance system was a dead end rendering the administrative remedies unavailable for Battle, id. at 18. She concludes that “Battle's claims should be deemed exhausted and denies summary judgment as to his claims. Id. at 19.

         As to Plaintiff Mack, it is undisputed that he filed grievances (ECF No. 57 at 19), but Defendants contend that they were untimely and unrelated to the claims that he is now alleging (ECF No. 49 at 8, 19). In reply, Mack submitted an affidavit in which he avers that a correctional officer told him that there would be repercussions if he filed a grievance. (ECF No. 34-13 at 2). Mack states that he believed this was a threat and that he could be hurt or killed if he filed a grievance. Id. Mack avers that he subsequently filed a Step 1 grievance about the assault after the officer filed an untruthful incident report about the assault. Id. This grievance was deemed untimely and returned unprocessed. Id. The magistrate judge “finds that John Mack has shown the administrative remedy procedure was not available to him” because he feared repercussions, id. at 21, and, alternatively, she finds the administrative remedies were a dead end and deems them unavailable, id. at 22. She concludes that “Mack's claims should be deemed exhausted and denies summary judgment as to his claims.” Id. at 22.

         As to Plaintiff Lyles, it is undisputed that he filed grievances regarding his attack. (ECF No. 57 at 23). He contends that he submitted a Request to Staff, and, after receiving no response (ECF No. 34-17 at 2-3), he filed a Step 1 grievance in which he stated the following:

On February 9, 2016, I was assaulted in my cell F1 2154 by another inmate(s). I was hit in my left eye with a [sp] medal object. I was bleeding [sp] instantaneously nonstop. Officer Ocean was working the F1 A unit when it happened. My door was left open they was supposed to be locked. Different and multiple inmates was in my cell while I was being assaulted. Ocean did not report the incident when it happened. Later that night when 2nd shift arrived, I laid halfway knocked out and the night officers did not take me to medical either. The following day, February 10, unit Lt. Scott & Capt. Richardson took me to medical to be examined. I told them both I had been assaulted. Dr. Pate stated my health conditions were fine and all I needed for my eye was liquid glue. He also deprived me of a technical shot as well. My eye was still bleeding severely. Around 12am February 11, Sgt. Lucky came to my cell and packed me up and escorted me to medical. I arrived at ...

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