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Harper v. Humphreys


September 30, 2009



Plaintiff is a state prisoner proceeding without counsel in an action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He alleges that defendant Nelson was deliberately indifferent to plaintiff's safety needs by failing to protect him from an assault by his cellmate on September 5, 2007. Defendant has moved to dismiss plaintiff's complaint for failure to exhaust administrative remedies prior to filing suit. For the reasons stated below, the court finds that defendant's motion to dismiss must be granted.

I. Legal Standards

Pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 ("PLRA"), "[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under [42 U.S.C. § 1983], or any other Federal law, 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(a). This requirement is mandatory and unequivocal. Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731, 741 (2001); McKinney v. Carey, 311 F.3d 1198, 1200 (9th Cir. 2002) ("Congress could have written a statute making exhaustion a precondition to judgment, but it did not. The actual statute makes exhaustion a precondition to suit." (citation omitted)). A prisoner seeking leave to proceed in forma pauperis in an action challenging the conditions of his confinement brings an action for purposes of 42 U.S.C. § 1997e when he submits his complaint to the court. Vaden v. Summerhill, 449 F.3d 1047, 1050 (9th Cir. 2006). Therefore, a prisoner must exhaust available administrative remedies before filing any papers in federal court and is not entitled to a stay of judicial proceedings in order to exhaust. Id. at 1051; McKinney, 311 F.3d 1198.

The failure to exhaust non-judicial administrative remedies as required by § 1997e(a) is not jurisdictional. Wyatt v. Terhune, 315 F.3d 1108, 1117 n.9 (9th Cir. 2003). Nor does § 1997e(a) require a plaintiff to plead exhaustion. Id. at 1119. Rather, "§ 1997e(a) creates a defense -- defendants have the burden of raising and proving the absence of exhaustion." Id. The Ninth Circuit determined in Wyatt that because the defense of failure to exhaust "is not on the merits" and summary judgment "is on the merits," the defense should be treated as a matter in abatement*fn1 to be resolved pursuant to a motion made under "unenumerated Rule 12(b)." Id.

The Circuit stated that "[i]n deciding a motion to dismiss for a failure to exhaust non-judicial remedies, the court may look beyond the pleadings and decide disputed issues of fact." Id. at 1119-20.

The United States Supreme Court expressly stated in Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 216 (2007), that failure to exhaust under the PLRA is an affirmative defense. If the affirmative defense can be decided on the pleadings alone, a motion under Rule 12(b)(6) is appropriate. Id. at 215. The Court analogized to a motion to dismiss based on a statute limitations defense and stated:

A complaint is subject to dismissal for failure to state a claim if the allegations, taken as true, show the plaintiff is not entitled to relief. If the allegations, for example, show that relief is barred by the applicable statute of limitations, the complaint is subject to dismissal for failure to state a claim; that does not make the statute of limitations any less an affirmative defense, see Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 8(c). Whether a particular ground for opposing a claim may be the basis for dismissal for failure to state a claim depends on whether the allegations in the complaint suffice to establish that ground, not on the nature of the ground in the abstract.


But, even when they are not addressed to the merits those affirmative defenses that require the presentation of evidence outside the pleadings (which includes the defense of failure to exhaust as required by 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a)) must be addressed under standards that apply the procedural safeguards of Rule 56, so that disputed material factual issues and the credibility of conflicting witnesses are resolved through live testimony and not on paper.*fn2 Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(d) (where a party presents affidavits or other matters outside the pleadings in support of its motion, the court must treat the motion "as one for summary judgment under Rule 56"), 56(b); Panero v. City of North Las Vegas, 432 F.3d 949, 952 (9th Cir. 2005).*fn3 The Court in Jones made clear that, "beyond the departures specified by the PLRA itself," nothing in the PLRA suggests that usual procedural practices should not be followed and noted that departures from the usual procedural requirements are to be expressly made by Congress. Jones, 549 U.S. at 212, 214-16 Additionally, the Ninth Circuit recognized in Wyatt that when the district court looks beyond the pleadings to a factual record, which commonly occurs in deciding an exhaustion motion, the court must do so under "a procedure closely analogous to summary judgment." Wyatt, 315 F.3d at 1119, n.14.

Thus, whether a motion asserting an affirmative defense such as failure to exhaust may be raised under Rule 12 or Rule 56 is not determined by whether the defense asserted in the motion goes to the "merits" of the claim. Whether judgment is sought on the merits or whether the motion seeks to bar consideration of the merits based on a technical ground that precludes reaching the merits (i.e., exhaustion, claim or issue preclusion, a statute of limitations, etc.), the determining factor is whether the factual predicate for the motion is based on the text of the pleading or instead depends upon evidence submitted with the motion. See Jones, 549 U.S. at 215 ("A complaint is subject to dismissal for failure to state a claim if the allegations, taken as true, show the plaintiff is not entitled to relief.").

Here, defendant's motion necessarily requires the court to consider the affidavits and exhibits presented for the purpose of proving the absence of exhaustion. Notwithstanding the analysis above, the court recognizes that under Wyatt the instant motion is to be presented as an "unenumerated" Rule 12(b) motion to dismiss. However, the court analyzes the motion, as Wyatt suggests, under a standard "closely analogous to summary judgment." 315 F.3d at 119, n.15. If, under that standard, the court concludes that the prisoner has failed to exhaust administrative remedies, the proper remedy is dismissal without prejudice. Id. at 1119-20.

On November 14, 2008, the court advised plaintiff of the requirements for opposing a motion to dismiss for failure to exhaust available administrative remedies as well as a motion pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See Rand v. Rowland, 154 F.3d 952, 957 (9th Cir. 1998) (en banc), cert. denied, 527 U.S. 1035 (1999); Klingele v. Eikenberry, 849 F.2d 409 (9th Cir. 1988); Wyatt, 315 F.3d at 1120, n.14.

II. Exhaustion Under California Law

California prisoners may appeal "any departmental decision, action, condition, or policy which they can demonstrate as having an adverse effect upon their welfare." Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 3084.1(a). The regulations require the use of specific forms but contain no guidelines for grievance content. Id. at §§ 3084.2, 3085. Prisoners ordinarily must present their allegations on one informal and three formal levels of review, although the informal and the first formal levels may be bypassed. Id. at § 3084.5. A division head reviews appeals on the first formal level, see id. at § 3084.5(b)(3) (authorizing bypass of the first formal level when the division head cannot resolve it), and the warden or a designee thereof reviews appeals on the second formal level. See id. at § 3084.5(e)(1). Generally, completion of the third level, the Director's Level of Review, exhausts the remedy. Id. at § 3084.1(a).

III. Analysis

Defendant contends that plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies prior to filing suit, and therefore, his complaint must be dismissed. Def.'s Mot. to Dism., Mem. of P. & A. in Supp. Thereof ("Def.'s P. & A.") at 2. Plaintiff alleges that he exhausted his administrative remedies by submitting an inmate appeal on September 18, 2007, which was denied, and then appealing that denial. Compl. at unnumbered page 3. Despite plaintiff's allegations, defendant's evidence shows that plaintiff submitted two appeals following the September 5, 2007 incident described in the complaint, neither one of which exhausted his administrative remedies. See Def.'s P. & A., Exs. B, C.

Defendant submits the declaration of E. Reyes, the Appeals Coordinator at Mule Creek State Prison, who has access to the inmate appeal records of plaintiff. Def.'s P. & A., Ex. B, Decl. of E. Reyes ("Reyes Decl.") ¶¶ 1-3. Reyes indicates there is no record of an appeal from plaintiff dated September 18, 2007. Id. at ¶ 18. Further, defendant submits the declaration of N. Grannis, the Chief of Inmate Appeals Branch, which reviews all inmate appeals submitted to the third or highest level of review. Def.'s P. & A., Ex. C, Decl. of N. Grannis ("Grannis Decl.") ¶¶ 1, 8. Together, the declarations indicate that between September 5, 2007 and December 10, 2007, plaintiff filed only two inmate appeals. See Reyes Decl. ¶ 13-17, Attachs. A, B, C; Grannis Decl. ¶12.

The first appeal is dated October 10, 2007, and concerns a Rules Violation Report plaintiff received on August 14, 2007, for delaying a peace officer. Reyes Decl. ¶ 16, Attach. C. This appeal was accepted at the third level of review, however, it did not exhaust plaintiff's administrative remedies because it has no relevance to the allegations in plaintiff's complaint. See id. at Attach. A; Grannis Decl. ¶ 12; see also Griffin v. Arpaio, 557 F.3d 1117, 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 4818, *6 (9th Cir. Mar. 5, 2009) (holding that to exhaust administrative remedies, a grievance must alert the prison to the nature of the wrong for which redress is sought).

Plaintiff's second appeal is dated October 24, 2007 and concerns a Rules Violation Report received by plaintiff for mutual combat on September 5, 2007. Reyes Decl. ¶ 14, Attach. B. This appeal does not concern the allegations in plaintiff's complaint, however, as it relates only to claims that plaintiff was denied due process at his Rules Violation Report hearing. See id. Thus, this appeal did not exhaust plaintiff's administrative remedies, as it would not notify the prison of the problem described by plaintiff in the instant complaint, i.e., that defendant was deliberately indifferent to plaintiff's safety needs by failing to protect him from an assault by his cellmate.*fn4 See Griffin, 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS at *7.

Additionally, the court observes that the first appeal was signed the same day that plaintiff commenced this suit and the second appeal was filed after plaintiff commenced this suit. See Reyes Decl., Attachs. B at 1, C at 1. Thus, even if these appeals had been factually relevant, which they were not, they could not have exhausted plaintiff's claims. See Vaden, 449 F.3d at 1051; McKinney, 311 F.3d at 1200.

As noted above, defendant has the burden to raise and prove the affirmative defense of failure to exhaust administrative remedies. See Jones, 127 S.Ct. at 921; Wyatt, 315 F.3d at 1119. Defendant has carried his burden in this regard. Plaintiff has not responded by demonstrating that he exhausted his administrative remedies, that such administrative remedies were unavailable, or that prison officials effectively obstructed his ability to pursue his grievance through the director's level of review. See Ngo v. Woodford, 539 F.3d 1108, 1110 (9th Cir. 2008). Rather, it appears that plaintiff may concede nonexhaustion, as he states in his opposition brief that his "claim is not ripe because he will obtain administrative review of this decision from the California Department of Corrections." Pl.'s Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. to Dism. at unnumbered page 2. Given these circumstances, the court concludes that plaintiff failed to properly exhaust his administrative remedies with respect to his claims and that defendant's motion to dismiss should therefore be granted.

IV. Conclusion

Accordingly, it is hereby RECOMMENDED that:

1. Defendant's motion to dismiss plaintiff's complaint be granted;

2. This action be dismissed without prejudice; and,

3. The Clerk of the Court be directed to enter judgment and close the case.

These findings and recommendations are submitted to the United States District Judge assigned to the case, pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(l). Within twenty days after being served with these findings and recommendations, any party may file written objections with the court and serve a copy on all parties. Such a document should be captioned "Objections to Magistrate Judge's Findings and Recommendations." Failure to file objections within the specified time may waive the right to appeal the District Court's order. Turner v. Duncan, 158 F.3d 449, 455 (9th Cir. 1998); Martinez v. Ylst, 951 F.2d 1153 (9th Cir. 1991).

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