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Walker v. Smokes

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Statesboro Division

July 2, 2018




         Plaintiff, who is currently housed at Telfair State Prison in Helena, Georgia, filed a cause of action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, as amended, to contest certain conditions of his confinement while he was housed at Smith State Prison in Glennville, Georgia. (Docs. 1, 13.) Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss, (doc. 41), to which Plaintiff filed a Response, (doc. 45). Defendants filed a Reply. (Doc. 46.) Plaintiff also filed a Motion for Appointment of Counsel and a Motion for Default. (Docs. 55, 56.) The Court DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Appointment of Counsel. For the reasons which follow, I RECOMMEND the Court GRANT in part and DENY in part Defendants' Motion to Dismiss and DISMISS as moot Plaintiff's Motion for Default. Should the Court adopt these Recommendations, the Court should DISMISS without prejudice Plaintiff's claims relating to his placement in the Tier II program for his failure to exhaust his administrative remedies. Plaintiff's Eighth Amendment claims, including his claims for injunctive relief, would remain pending.


         In this action, Plaintiff alleges that he is at severe risk of attack from his fellow inmates because he disavowed his status as a member of the “Goodfellas Gang.” (Docs. 1, 13.) Plaintiff states that he arrived at Smith State Prison from Georgia State Prison on August 4, 2014. (Doc. 13, p. 3.) Prior to his arrival at Smith State Prison, Plaintiff disavowed his membership in the Goodfellas gang and worked with the administration at Georgia State Prison as an informant (apparently against the Goodfellas gang). (Id.) Upon his arrival at Smith State Prison, a correctional officer explained to Plaintiff he would be placed in the Tier II program because all Goodfellas members were housed in that program. (Id. at pp. 3-4.) The officer explained that, per Defendant Stanley Williams, the Warden of Smith State Prison, Plaintiff would not be allowed to be housed in another dorm. (Id. at p. 4.) Plaintiff explained he severed all of his ties with the Goodfellas in October 2013 and that he was not housed in the Tier II program at Georgia State Prison. (Id.) The officer responded that Defendant Williams and Defendant Eric Smokes, the unit manager, assign the inmates' housing locations and that Plaintiff's assignment was “out of her hands.” (Id.)

         Plaintiff then spoke with Defendant Smokes. (Id. at p. 5.) Plaintiff explained to Defendant Smokes that he was no longer a member of the Goodfellas gang and that leaders of the gang, Abdul Williams and Jonathan McClendon, had “put a contract hit on [Plaintiff's] life.” (Id.) Plaintiff was placed in a single man cell in the Tier II program, and staff explained the policies for contesting Tier II administrative segregation status. (Id. at pp. 5, 15-16.)

         On August 6, 2014, Plaintiff spoke with a “multi-functional officer” and Defendant Williams regarding his placement in Tier II. (Id. at p. 6.) He asked Defendant Williams when he would receive his administrative segregation hearing per the Prison's Standard Operating Procedure. (Id.) Warden Williams did not respond. (Id.) Plaintiff made several more attempts in August 2014 to speak with Williams and Smokes regarding this placement in Tier II but was unsuccessful. (Id.) On September 10, 2014, Plaintiff spoke with Defendant Williams and again raised his safety concerns with being placed in Tier II. (Id. at pp. 6-7.) Defendant Williams told Plaintiff that, as a member of the Goodfellas gang, he would not get a hearing to contest his placement in the Tier II program. (Id.)

         The Court directed service of Plaintiff's Complaint on Defendants by Order dated December 31, 2015. (Doc. 19.) Defendants then filed their Motion to Dismiss on August 16, 2016. (Doc. 41.)


         In their Motion, Defendants assert Plaintiff failed to exhaust his available administrative remedies regarding his placement in administrative segregation prior to the filing of his Complaint. Defendants contend Plaintiff does not set forth a viable Eighth Amendment claim against them. Additionally, Defendants contend Plaintiff is not entitled to injunctive relief and they are entitled to qualified immunity. (Doc. 41-1.)

         In response, Plaintiff contends he exhausted his administrative remedies as to the assertions he made in his Complaint. Plaintiff maintains he sets forth sufficient facts to support his Eighth Amendment claim against Defendants. Moreover, Plaintiff asserts he is entitled to injunctive relief and Defendants are not immune from suit. (Doc. 45.)

         As set forth below, I agree that Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as to his placement in administrative segregation prior to the filing of his Complaint and this portion of Defendants' Motion is due to be granted. However, Plaintiff does set forth sufficient facts to sustain his Eighth Amendment claims against Defendants, including his claims for injunctive relief, and these portions of Defendants' Motion are due to be denied.

         I. Whether Plaintiff Exhausted his Administrative Remedies

         A. Standard of Review for Exhaustion

         The determination of whether an inmate exhausted his available administrative remedies prior to filing a cause of action in federal court is a matter of abatement and should be raised in a motion to dismiss. Bryant v. Rich, 530 F.3d 1368, 1374 (11th Cir. 2008). “Because exhaustion of administrative remedies is a matter in abatement and not generally an adjudication on the merits, an exhaustion defense . . . is not ordinarily the proper subject for a summary judgment; instead, it should be raised in a motion to dismiss, or be treated as such if raised in a motion for summary judgment.” Id. at 1374-75 (internal citation omitted). “Even though a failure-to-exhaust defense is non-jurisdictional, it is like” a jurisdictional defense because such a determination “ordinarily does not deal with the merits” of a particular cause of action. Id. at 1374 (internal punctuation and citation omitted). Further, a judge “may resolve factual questions” in instances where exhaustion of administrative remedies is a defense before the court. Id. In these instances, “it is proper for a judge to consider facts outside of the pleadings and to resolve factual disputes so long as the factual disputes do not decide the merits and the parties have sufficient opportunity to develop a record.” Id. at 1376.

         In Turner v. Burnside, 541 F.3d 1079 (11th Cir. 2008), the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals set forth a “two-step process” that lower courts must employ when examining the issue of exhaustion of administrative remedies. First, the court is to take the plaintiff's version of the facts regarding exhaustion as true. Id. at 1082. If, even under the plaintiff's version of the facts, the plaintiff has not exhausted, the complaint must be dismissed. Id. However, if the parties' conflicting facts leave a dispute as to whether plaintiff has exhausted, the court need not accept all of plaintiff's facts as true. Id. Rather, “the court then proceeds to make specific findings in order to resolve the disputed factual issues[.]” Id. “Once the court makes findings on the disputed issues of fact, it then decides whether under those findings the prisoner has exhausted his available administrative remedies.” Id. at 1083. The Eleventh Circuit has held that a district court may consider materials outside of the pleadings and resolve factual disputes regarding exhaustion in conjunction with a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss so long as the factual disputes do not decide the merits of the case. See Bryant, 530 F.3d at 1376-77.

         B. Legal Requirements for Exhaustion

         Where Congress explicitly mandates, prisoners seeking relief for alleged constitutional violations must first exhaust inmate grievance procedures before filing suit in federal court. See Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 524 (2002). Section 1997e(a) of Title 42 of the United States Code states, “No action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 of this title, or any other Federal law . . . until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.” In Porter, the United States Supreme Court held that exhaustion of available administrative remedies is mandatory. Porter, 534 U.S. at 523; see also O'Brien v. United States, 137 Fed.Appx. 295, 301-02 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (finding lack of exhaustion where prisoner “prematurely filed his civil complaint . . . and . . . ‘failed to heed that clear statutory command' requiring that his administrative remedies be exhausted before bringing suit”). Additionally, the Supreme Court has “held that the PLRA's [Prison Litigation Reform Act's] text suggests no limits on an inmate's obligation to exhaust-irrespective of any ‘special circumstances.' And that mandatory language means a court may not excuse a failure to exhaust, even to take such circumstances into account.” Ross v. Blake, 578 U.S.,, 136 S.Ct. 1850, 1856 (2016).

         The requirement that the exhaustion of remedies occur “first in an agency setting allows ‘the agency [to] develop the necessary factual background upon which decisions should be based' and giv[es] ‘the agency a chance to discover and correct its own errors.'” Green v. Sec'y for Dep't of Corr., 212 Fed.Appx. 869, 871 (11th Cir. 2006) (per curiam) (quoting Alexander v. Hawk, 159 F.3d 1321, 1327 (11th Cir. 1998) (first alteration in original)). Furthermore, requiring exhaustion in the prison setting “eliminate[s] unwarranted federal-court interference with the administration of prisons” and allows “corrections officials time and opportunity to address complaints internally before allowing the initiation of a federal case.” Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 93 (2006).

         The Supreme Court has noted exhaustion must be “proper.” Id. at 92. “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. at 90-91. In other words, an institution's requirements define what is considered exhaustion. Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 218 (2007).

         Thus, under the law, prisoners must do more than simply initiate grievances; they must also appeal any denial of relief through all levels of review that comprise the administrative grievance process. Bryant v. Rich, 530 F.3d 1368, 1378 (11th Cir. 2008) (“To exhaust administrative remedies in accordance with the PLRA, prisoners must ‘properly take each step within the administrative process.'” (quoting Johnson v. Meadows, 418 F.3d 1152, 1157 (11th Cir. 2005))); Sewell v. Ramsey, No. CV406-159, 2007 WL 201269 (S.D. Ga. Jan. 27, 2007) (finding that a plaintiff who is still awaiting a response from the warden regarding his grievance is still in the process of exhausting his administrative remedies).

         Furthermore, an inmate who files an untimely grievance or simply spurns the administrative process until it is no longer available fails to satisfy the exhaustion requirement of the PLRA. Johnson, 418 F.3d at 1157-59; Higginbottom v. Carter, 223 F.3d 1259, 1261 (11th Cir. 2000) (inmate's belief that administrative procedures are futile or needless does not excuse the exhaustion requirement). Additionally, “[t]he only facts pertinent to determining whether a prisoner has satisfied the PLRA's exhaustion requirement are those that existed when he filed his original complaint.” Smith v. Terry, 491 Fed.Appx. 81, 83 (11th Cir. 2012) (per curiam).

         “However, ‘while [Section] 1997e(a) requires that a prisoner provide as much relevant information as he reasonably can in the administrative grievance process, it does not require more.'” Id. (quoting Brown v. Sikes, 212 F.3d 1205, 1207 (11th Cir. 2000)). Nevertheless, the purpose of Section 1997e(a) is not that “fact-intensive litigation” result over whether every fact relevant to the cause of action was included in the grievance. Hooks v. Rich, CV605-65, 2006 WL 565909, at *5 (S.D. Ga. Mar. 7, 2006) (internal citation omitted). “‘As long as the basic purposes of exhaustion are fulfilled, there does not appear to be any reason to require a prisoner plaintiff to present fully developed legal and factual claims at the administrative level.'” Id. (quoting Irvin v. Zamora, 161 F.Supp.2d 1125, 1135 (S.D. Cal. 2001)). Rather, Section 1997e(a) is intended to force inmates to give state prison authorities a chance to correct constitutional violations in their prisons before resorting to federal suit and to prevent patently frivolous lawsuits. Id.

         C. The Georgia Department of Corrections' Rules and Procedures Regarding Administrative Segregation and Exhaustion Thereof

         The Georgia Department of Corrections' rules and regulations concerning placement in administrative segregation can be found at Standard Operating Procedure (“SOP”) IIB09-0001 and/or SOP IIB09-0003.[1] (Doc. 41-2, p. 9; Doc. 13, p. 17.) The Tier II program “is an offender management process” and was established “to protect staff, offenders, and the public from offenders[] who commit or lead others to commit violent, disruptive, predatory, or riotous actions, or who otherwise pose a serious threat to the safety and security of the institutional operation.” (Id.) The Tier II program is a “[l]ong [t]erm [a]dministrative [s]egregation stratification plan that manages the institutional conduct and programmatic need of offenders assigned to the program.” (Id.) The Classification Committee reviews all recommendations for assignment to the Tier II program, and the Classification Committee's recommendations are submitted directly to the Warden or designee for approval. (Id. at p. 18.) After assignment to the Tier II program, the Classification Committee holds an administrative segregation hearing within ninety-six (96) hours of the assignment. The Warden or designee will review all Classification Committee recommendations, and this process must be completed within seven (7) business days. Upon the Warden's (or designee's) approval of a recommendation for placement in the Tier II program, the inmate will be served with a copy of the action. (Id.) An inmate can appeal his assignment to the Tier II program “by submitting written objections . . . to the Director of Facilities Operations of his/her [d]esignee within three (3) business days from receipt of the notice.” (Id.) The inmate “must include detailed information in his appeal” and submit his appeal to his assigned counselor. The review of the inmate's appeal shall be completed within fourteen (14) business days of receipt. (Id.)

         After an inmate has been in the Tier II program for ninety (90) days, he will have a meeting with the Classification Committee, which is a “culmination of the previous informal . . . contacts that have been completed as part of the routine case management practices[.]” (Id. at p. 19.) The Classification Committee will review the counselor's recommendation to determine whether the inmate will transition from one phase to the next phase; be retained in the current phase or reassigned to a previous phase for ninety (90) days; assigned to segregation, the Tier I program, or general population upon completion of the Tier II program; or reassigned in the inmate's current phase at another facility. (Id.) In making its recommendation, the Classification Committee will give specific reasons for its recommendation and will consider the inmate's: length of time in the current phase; continued facility risk; number, type, and frequency of disciplinary reports; progress in the Tier II program; and demeanor with staff in the Tier II living areas and during periodic reviews. (Id.) Once the Warden or designee approves the Classification Committee's recommendation, the inmate will be served with a copy of the action. As with the initial placement in the Tier II program, the inmate is to file an appeal of the 90-day review with the Warden within three (3) business days of receipt of the notice. The inmate must include “detailed information appealing the assignment.” (Id.) The Warden or designee has seven (7) business days to complete a review. (Id.)

         D. Plaintiff's ...

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