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Settle v. Phillips

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville

May 21, 2018

MIKE SETTLE, Plaintiff,


          Leon Jordan United States District Judge

         Mike Settle, a state prisoner who was formerly represented by appointed counsel but is now acting pro se, is the plaintiff in this civil rights case for monetary, declaratory, and injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 [Doc. 1]. The sole defendant is Shawn Phillips, the Warden at the Morgan County Correctional Complex (“MCCX”). The case is before the Court on three motions-Defendant's motion for summary judgment and supplement to the motion [Docs. 41 and 68], Defendant's motion to extend time to file a dispositive motion [Doc. 72], and Plaintiff's “Motion for Supplement Pleadings” [Doc. 74]. For reasons expressed below, the Court will GRANT Defendant's dispositive motion, DENY Defendant's motion for a time extension as moot, and DENY Plaintiff's motion to file a supplement.


         A. Background

         The facts of this case are set forth in the screening order [Doc. 7]. To summarize briefly those facts, Plaintiff alleged that he was suffering severe psychological damages from seventeen years of indefinite confinement in administrative segregation and that, on March 3, 2016, Defendant disapproved of a panel's recommendation that Plaintiff be released from administrative segregation [Id. at 5-6]. Plaintiff also maintained the Defendant did not provide a detailed statement of reasons for disapproving the recommendation, as required by prison policy [Doc. 1 at ¶ 16, Doc. 1-2 at 3, ¶ B.3]. The screening order allowed only Plaintiff's procedural due process claim to advance in the lawsuit [Doc. 7]. Other claims asserted in an amended complaint likewise were permitted to advance, including a claim that Plaintiff's continued confinement in administrative segregation also violated his rights under the Eighth Amendment; a claim that Defendant told an officer not to allow Plaintiff to work because Plaintiff filed this lawsuit (a retaliation claim); and a state law claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress [Doc. 35].

         Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies prior to filing this action [Doc. 41.] Plaintiff responded by asserting that his complaints regarding administrative segregation were not grievable and that he need not exhaust administrative remedies where none existed [Doc. 64]. The Court issued an order addressing Defendant's dispositive motion, setting forth the summary judgment standard, the law on exhaustion of administrative remedies, and the factual circumstances of the case [Doc. 65].

         The Court determined that Plaintiff had not exhausted his administrative remedies on all claims and that it needed additional information as to whether he had an available remedy for one claim [Doc. 65 at 5-6]. Therefore, the Court ordered Defendant to supplement his motion to supply that information [Id. at 6-7]. More specifically, the supplement to the dispositive motion was intended to clarify whether, given the exclusion of matters related to institutional placement and custody level as appropriate subject matter of grievances, “TDOC's grievance system provided a vehicle for Plaintiff's complaint about his extended period in administrative segregation” [Id.].[1]Defendant responded by filing both a supplement and a supporting affidavit [Docs. 68-69].

         Plaintiff submitted a reply to Defendant's response and supplement, as well as his own declaration [Doc. 76]. The Court does not find that Plaintiff has presented sufficient evidence of exhaustion of administrative remedies to overcome Defendant's summary judgment showing. Rather, the Court concludes that Defendant has satisfied his burden of substantiating that Plaintiff failed to exhaust his available administrative remedies [Docs. 68-69].

         B. Legal Standards

         Summary judgment will be granted with respect to Defendant's motion, as long as what is before the Court by way of pleadings, declarations, cited materials, records, and other pertinent documents demonstrate that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). It is appropriate to grant summary judgment based on an alleged failure to exhaust administrative remedies “only if defendants establish the absence of a ‘genuine dispute as to any material fact' regarding non-exhaustion.” Mattox v. Edelman, 851 F.3d 583, 589-90 (6th Cir. 2017) (quoting Risher v. Lapin, 639 F.3d 236, 240 (6th Cir. 2011)).

         Moreover, a defendant's “initial summary judgment burden is higher in that it must show that the record contains evidence satisfying the burden of persuasion and that the evidence is so powerful that no reasonable jury would be free to disbelieve it.” Surles v. Andison, 678 F.3d 452, 455-56 (6th Cir. 2012) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Stated differently, Defendant “must prove that no reasonable jury could find that that the plaintiff exhausted his administrative remedies.” Mattox, 851 F.3d at 590 (citing Surles, 678 at 455-56).

         The Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”) provides that “[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.” 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e). Irrespective of the forms of relief sought or offered through the administrative avenue, including monetary damages, the statute requires a prisoner to exhaust his administrative remedies. Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731, 741 n.6 (2001).

         C. Analysis

         The § 1997e(e) requirement applies to Plaintiff's claim that, on March 3, 2016, Defendant disapproved an administrative segregation review panel's recommendation that Plaintiff be released to general population and that Defendant did not provide a detailed statement of reasons for the disapproval, as required by TDOC Policy 404.10(B)(3) [Doc. 1 at 6-7, Doc. 1-2 at 3, ¶ B.3]. The exhaustion-of-administrative-remedies requirement also applies to Plaintiff's claim that his confinement in administrative segregation and the conditions to which he was exposed violated the Eighth Amendment [Docs. 20 and 35 at 4].[2]

         To rebut Defendant's assertion that Plaintiff failed to exhaust administrative remedies, Plaintiff maintains that he offered his claim to the prison authorities using the institutional grievance system, but that the grievance was returned to him “as inappropriate grievance” [Doc. 76 at 1-3]. Plaintiff insists that TDOC Policy 501.01(VI)(H)(3), which prohibits the submission of more than one grievance arising out of the same or similar incident, together with the filing of the prior grievance contesting his housing in administrative segregation, suffices to show that there was a “flat rule” against presenting such claims in a grievance [Id. at 2].

         The issue thus becomes whether Plaintiff had an “available” administrative remedy for his complaints regarding administrative segregation or whether TDOC has a policy that imposes a “flat rule” against pursuing such claims in a grievance and, thereby, renders that remedy unavailable.

         To show that the administrative grievance system is unavailable, an inmate may demonstrate: (1) that the grievance system operates as a “dead end, ” in that officers are unable or consistently unwilling to provide relief; (2) that it is “so opaque” that no ordinary inmate can discern or use it; or (3) that prison officials thwart inmates from taking advantage of the grievance process through “machination, misrepresentation, or intimidation.” Ross v. Blake, 136 S.Ct. 1850, 1859-1860 (2016) (listing three circumstances that can make a grievance procedure unavailable). The existence of any of these circumstances renders that process unavailable. Id.

         Plaintiff correctly argues that a prisoner need not pursue an administrative remedy “where the prison system has an across-the-board policy declining to utilize that [administrative] remedy for the type of claim raised by the prisoner” [Doc. 76 at 3]. See Id. at 1856 (holding that there are “no limits on an inmate's obligation to exhaust” but that “the remedies must indeed be ‘available'” to an inmate); see also Rancher v. Franklin Cnty., 122 Fed.Appx. 240, 242 (6th Cir. 2005) (excusing the exhaustion requirement based on uncontradicted evidence showing the existence of a “flat rule” against medical grievances); Wyatt v. Leonard, 193 F.3d 876, 878 (6th Cir. 1999) (observing that “it makes sense to excuse exhaustion of the prisoner's complaint where the prison system has a flat rule declining jurisdiction over such cases”). The Court views Plaintiff's ...

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