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Brooks v. Mich

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

December 21, 2017



          Michael J. Reagan United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         In July of 2016, Emmanuel Brooks, then an inmate at Menard Correctional Center, filed suit in this Court under 42 U.S.C. 1983. After his initial pro se complaint was dismissed for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted, Brooks amended his complaint (see Docs. 10, 12). On threshold review of the amended complaint in December 2016, the undersigned dismissed a claim against one named Defendant (Warden Kim Butler) and concluded that Brooks had stated cognizable Eighth Amendment claims for failure to protect him from harm at the hands of his former cellmate against correctional officers Kenneth Donnals and John Mich. (see Doc. 14). Donnals and Mich. (collectively, “Defendants”) answered the complaint in February 2016. The answer included the affirmative defense, inter alia, that Plaintiff Brooks had failed to exhaust all administrative remedies before filing this suit (Doc. 20, p. 8).

         In July 2017, Defendants moved for summary judgment on the basis of exhaustion. The Honorable Stephen C. Williams, the Magistrate Judge to whom the case is referred for pretrial proceedings, conducted a status conference on the issue in September 2017 (with Brooks, by then incarcerated at Danville Correctional Center) participating via videoconference. Judge Williams ordered Defendants to produce certain documents relevant to the question of whether Brooks had exhausted his administrative remedies before filing this action.

         In October 2017, Judge Williams held an evidentiary hearing on Defendants' summary judgment motion, again with Plaintiff Brooks participating by videoconference. Judge Williams heard Plaintiff's testimony, received exhibits, ordered a transcript prepared, and took the matter under advisement. Now before the Court is a Report and Recommendation issued by Judge Williams (Doc. 45, the “R&R”), to which Plaintiff Brooks timely objected twice (Docs. 46, 48), and Defendants responded on November 22, 2017 (Doc. 50). Analysis begins with reference to the standards governing Defendants' exhaustion-based summary judgment motion.

         II. Applicable Legal Standards

         A. Summary Judgment

         Summary judgment is proper only “if the admissible evidence considered as a whole shows there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Dynegy Mktg. & Trade v. Multi Corp., 648 F.3d 506, 517 (7th Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted), citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). See also Ruffin-Thompkins v. Experian Info. Solutions, Inc., 422 F.3d 603, 607 (7thCir. 2005).

         The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of showing --based on the pleadings, affidavits, and/or information obtained via discovery -- the lack of any genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). After a properly supported motion for summary judgment is made, the adverse party “must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986), quoting Fed R. Civ. P. 56(e)(2). A fact is material if it is outcome determinative under applicable law. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; Ballance v. City of Springfield, Ill. Police Department, 424 F.3d 614, 616 (7thCir. 2005); Hottenroth v. Village of Slinger, 388 F.3d 1015, 1027 (7th Cir. 2004). A genuine issue of material fact exists if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

         Generally a district court's role on summary judgment is not to evaluate the weight of the evidence, judge witness credibility, or determine the truth of the matter. It is only to determine whether a general issue of triable fact exists. Nat'l Athletic Sportwear Inc. v. Westfield Ins. Co., 528 F.3d 508, 512 (7th Cir. 2008). A slightly different standard applies to summary judgment on the issue of exhaustion.

         A motion for summary judgment based upon failure to exhaust administrative remedies often involves a hearing to determine contested issues regarding exhaustion, and the judge may make limited findings of fact at that time. Pavey v. Conley, 544 F.3d 739, 742 (7th Cir. 2008). The case may proceed on the merits only after any contested issue of exhaustion is resolved. Pavey, 544 F.3d at 742. In the case at bar, Judge Williams conducted a hearing in light of contested factual issues (see Doc. 45, p. 5). Plaintiff testified at the hearing, specifically addressing the issue of a grievance at the heart of the dispute here - his October 23, 2015 grievance relating to a request to be moved from his cell at Menard, away from cellmate D. Sankey - as well as two grievances filed in 2016 related to law library access. The undersigned has reviewed the transcript prepared from the October 19, 2017 hearing before Judge Williams.

         B. Exhaustion Under the PLRA

         Lawsuits brought by prisoners are governed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C 1997e. The PLRA requires that “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 … administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.” 42 U.S.C. 1997e(a).

         Exhaustion is a condition precedent to suit in federal court, so the inmate must exhaust before he commences his federal litigation; he cannot exhaust while his lawsuit is pending. See Perez v. Wisconsin Department of Corrections, 182 F.3d 532, 535 (7thCir. 1999); Dixon v. Page, 291 F.3d 485, 488 (7th Cir. 2002). If the inmate fails to exhaust before filing suit in federal court, the district court must dismiss the suit. See Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 223 (2007); Burrell v. Powers, 431 F.3d 282, 284-85 (7th Cir. 2005).[1]

         The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit requires strict adherence to the PLRA's exhaustion requirement. See Dole v. Chandler, 438 F.3d 804, 809 (7th Cir. 2006) ('This circuit has taken a strict compliance approach to exhaustion”). “Unless a prisoner completes the administrative process by following rules the state has established for that process, exhaustion has not occurred.” Pozo v. McCaughtry, 286 F.3d 1022, 1025 (7th Cir. 2002). This includes the filing of “complaints and appeals in the place, and at the time, the prison's rules require.” Id. at 1025. If the prisoner fails to comply with the established procedures, including time restraints, the court may not consider the claims. Pavey v. Conley, 663 F.3d 899, 903 (7th Cir. 2011).

         The purpose of the exhaustion requirement is two-fold. First, it gives the prison officials the chance to address the prisoner's claims internally, before any litigation becomes necessary. Kaba v. Stepp, 458 F.3d 678, 684 (7th Cir. 2006); Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 89-90 (2006). Second, it “seeks to reduce the quantity and improve the quality of prisoner ...

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