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Prisoner Litigation Reform Act's Exhaustion Requirement Is Inapplicable When An Inmate Is Not Informed Of The Grievance Process

Failure to exhaust administrative remedies pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PRLA”), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), is a common defense in prisoner civil rights litigation. Federal courts strictly enforce this requirement, and therefore it is often a dispositive defense. However, the Seventh Circuit recently held that an inmate-plaintiff had no duty to follow a corrections facility’s grievance process when the facility failed to inform him of its process. In such instances, an administrative remedy is unavailable. And when an administrative remedy is unavailable, the PLRA’s requirements are inapplicable. See Hernandez v. Dart, No. 15-2493 (7th Cir. 2016).

Hernandez raised Section 1983 claims against the Cook County Department of Corrections (“CCDOC”) including an allegation of excessive force. A car accident in 2012 rendered Hernandez a quadriplegic. He has no use of his legs, limited use of his arms, and cannot write. On the day he was taken into custody, Hernandez was hospitalized for treatment of pressure wounds that had developed during his stay at a nursing home. Pursuant to Cook County Sheriff’s Office policy, one of his hands and one of his feet were shackled to the hospital bed. Hernandez orally complained to correctional and hospital personnel, as he believed it stunted his recovery by preventing him from moving so his sores could heal.

CCDOC’s Inmate Information Handbook sets forth a grievance process, which requires inmates to file a written grievance within fifteen days of the alleged incident. Once a response is received, the inmate has 14 days to appeal the decision. However, Hernandez never received a copy of the Handbook. Nor did anyone from CCDOC tell Hernandez about the grievance process. Rather, Hernandez claimed that he later learned about the process from fellow inmates after being discharged from the hospital.

Hernandez never filed a written grievance regarding his shackling at the hospital. After his discharge, he continued to complain about the medical care he was receiving. And because he was unable to write, Hernandez had fellow inmates assist him in writing and filing grievances about other issues. One of those grievances pertained to nursing staff’s alleged refusal to help him move between his bed and his chair. He timely filed that grievance and timely appealed it. After his appeal of that grievance was denied, Hernandez filed suit in federal district court claiming deliberate indifference to his medical needs. He also included an allegation of excessive force related to his shackling while in the hospital. The defendants moved for summary judgment based only on the defense of failure to exhaust under the PLRA.

The PRLA prohibits both pre-trial detainees and sentenced prisoners from bringing any action regarding prison conditions under Section 1983 until the correctional facility’s administrative remedies have been exhausted. If the prisoner-plaintiff files suit prior to exhausting his administrative remedies, the suit must be dismissed. It does not matter if the inmate does not believe the administrative response would effectively redress his complaint. Additionally, the inmate must use “all steps the prison holds out” and do so properly. If the facility’s procedures provide an appeal process, the inmate cannot simply file a grievance and stop there. He must follow the process through to its conclusion. Further, the inmate cannot complain that the facility failed to engage in the process if the inmate did not follow the procedure properly.

In Hernandez’s case, the district court held that Hernandez’s oral complaints about his shackling constituted a proper grievance but held that he had nevertheless failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. (The Seventh Circuit’s decision does not explain why the district court held that Hernandez had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies despite the proper grievance. Presumably, it is because Hernandez did not appeal the decision or response to his oral complaints.) The district court dismissed the case without prejudice, but the corresponding docket entry stated that Hernandez’s case was “terminated."

The Seventh Circuit reversed. First, it held that although the case was dismissed without prejudice, the dismissal was effectively a final order and therefore the Seventh Circuit had jurisdiction over the appeal. Second, as to the exhaustion issues, it held that the grievance process was unavailable to Hernandez during the relevant period regarding the excessive force claim. When the process is unavailable to an inmate, the PLRA is inapplicable. Hernandez was not informed of the grievance process while he was hospitalized and shackled, and the defendants did not produce any evidence that they informed him of the process upon his discharge from the hospital. That Hernandez orally complained was “of no moment,” because Hernandez had no duty to comply with a grievance process of which he was unaware. 

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