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Davis v. Mason

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

February 6, 2018

Terry Davis, Plaintiff-Appellant,
David Mason and Blake Thrasher, Defendants-Appellees.

          Submitted May 4, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. 1:15-cv-01206-TWP-TAB - Tanya Walton Pratt, Judge.

          Before Kanne, Sykes, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.


         Terry Davis, an Indiana prisoner, sued two prison guards alleging that they punched him repeatedly, put him in a chokehold, and placed a plastic bag over his head -all gratuitously and thus in violation of his rights under the Eighth Amendment. A district judge entered summary judgment for the defendants, holding that Davis had not exhausted his administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). We vacate and remand for further proceedings. The evidence in the summary-judgment record does not clearly show that Davis failed to exhaust available administrative remedies.

         I. Background

         Grievances by Indiana prisoners proceed in three steps. The inmate must (1) attempt informal resolution; (2) file a formal grievance; and (3) file an administrative appeal. IND. Dep't of Corr., Manual of Policies & Procedures ("IDOC Manual of Policies & Procedures"), No. 00-02-301, §§ V, XIII, XIV (July 2012),[1]

         The first step requires the inmate to raise his complaint with an appropriate staff member as defined in the written policy. Id. § XIII(A). If the matter cannot be resolved informally, the inmate must submit a formal grievance. A grievance may be returned unprocessed if it does not comply with certain criteria in the written policy, including a rule against using the regular grievance process to avoid specialized procedures for disputing disciplinary sanctions or "classification" decisions like facility transfers, bed assignments, and changes in security levels. See id. §§ V(B)(5-6), XIV(A), (B)(5-6). If a grievance is returned unprocessed, however, the inmate must be told "why the form was returned and how it may be corrected." Id. § XIV(B). The prisoner then has five working days to correct the identified deficiencies and resubmit the form. Id. As relevant here, the grievance policy makes no mention of a requirement to notify Internal Affairs and does not authorize an administrative appeal of a refusal to process a grievance.

         Davis filed this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that two corrections officers-David Mason and Blake Thrasher -assaulted him, unprovoked, on January 5, 2014, leaving him with two black eyes, broken teeth, and possibly a broken nose. In the days immediately following the alleged assault, Davis tried several times to submit grievances complaining about this incident, but none were processed. He filed the first one on January 10, five days after the incident. The grievance coordinator received this filing on January 15 and that same day sent Davis a "Return of Grievance" form saying that she would not process it. The return form contains a list of boilerplate reasons for refusing to process a grievance. The coordinator checked two boxes: (1) the grievance could not be processed because it raised a "[classification ... issue or action" and (2) was "not completely filled out." The grievance coordinator did not identify the "classification" issue or explain what was missing from Davis's filing. Rather, she instructed Davis "to contact Internal Affairs in this matter."

         Davis promptly resubmitted his grievance, but on January 23 the coordinator again sent him a Return of Grievance form. This time she did not check the box rejecting the grievance as incomplete. As before, however, she checked the box indicating that the grievance concerned an unidentified "classification" issue. And she again wrote that Davis needed to contact Internal Affairs "for an investigation." Finally, the coordinator cryptically instructed him to contact his "unit team for the separate[] issue."

         On March 7 Davis tried a third time to submit a formal grievance regarding the assault. The grievance coordinator sent him another Return of Grievance form, this one indicating that the grievance was "too late" and again asserting that Davis needed to contact Internal Affairs. Davis resubmitted the grievance a few days later with the same outcome, except this time the return form omitted the instruction to contact Internal Affairs. Instead, the coordinator indicated that although she was returning Davis's latest grievance because he "failed to file it in a timely manner, " she would forward a copy to Internal Affairs "because of the seriousness of your complaint."

         The administrative trail ends there. Davis thereafter filed suit against Mason, Thrasher, and 12 other corrections officials. The judge screened the complaint and dismissed the claims against the other 12 defendants, see 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, and Davis does not challenge that decision. Mason and Thrasher answered the complaint, asserting (among other defenses) that Davis failed to exhaust administrative remedies. At the judge's invitation, they moved for summary judgment on the exhaustion defense. They did not object to Davis's failure to seek an informal resolution before submitting his formal grievances. Nor did they assert that Davis could have, but did not, pursue an administrative appeal after the grievance coordinator refused to process each of his grievances. Rather, they argued that Davis did not file a proper grievance and, when given the chance, did not remedy the shortcomings in his submissions.

         As evidentiary support the officers submitted the Return of Grievance forms and a declaration from the grievance coordinator. The coordinator's declaration sheds no further light on what was missing from Davis's grievances. Nor does it identify the "classification" issue or explain why talking to Internal Affairs was a precondition to having a grievance processed. The officers did not introduce Davis's four grievances to give context to the coordinator's return forms, and they have not contradicted Davis's contention that his grievances-his only copies, he says-were not sent back to him with the return forms.

         Davis countered that the return forms themselves confirm that he made a good-faith effort to submit a grievance. He also argued that Internal Affairs "refused to take the matter at hand seriously, " but he did not say when he first contacted Internal Affairs. The judge accepted the officers' contention that Davis's grievances were ...

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