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Charles C. James v. Fagan

February 25, 2013

CHARLES C. JAMES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
FAGAN, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Plaintiff is a state prisoner proceeding without counsel and in forma pauperis in an action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff proceeds on an Eighth Amendment claim against defendant Faggan based on an alleged use of excessive force on October 27, 2010 at the California Medical Facility. Defendant moves to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b), on the ground that plaintiff failed to exhaust available administrative remedies prior to filing suit. Dckt. No. 18. For the following reasons, defendant's motion must be denied.

I. Exhaustion under the PLRA

The Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA") provides that "[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions [under section 1983 of this title] until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted." 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). "Prison conditions" subject to the exhaustion requirement have been defined broadly as "the effects of actions by government officials on the lives of persons confined in prison . . . ." 18 U.S.C. § 3626(g)(2); Smith v. Zachary, 255 F.3d 446, 449 (7th Cir. 2001); see also Lawrence v. Goord, 304 F.3d 198, 200 (2d Cir. 2002). To satisfy the exhaustion requirement, a grievance must alert prison officials to the claims the plaintiff has included in the complaint, but need only provide the level of detail required by the grievance system itself. Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 218-19 (2007); Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 524-25 (2002) (purpose of exhaustion requirement is to give officials "time and opportunity to address complaints internally before allowing the initiation of a federal case").

Prisoners who file grievances must use a form provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which instructs the inmate to describe the problem and outline the action requested. The grievance process, as defined by California regulations, has three levels of review to address an inmate's claims, subject to certain exceptions. See Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 3084.7. Administrative procedures generally are exhausted once a plaintiff has received a "Director's Level Decision," or third level review, with respect to his issues or claims. Id. § 3084.1(b).

Proper exhaustion of available remedies is mandatory, Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731, 741 (2001), and "[p]roper exhaustion demands compliance with an agency's deadlines and other critical procedural rules[.]" Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 90 (2006). For a remedy to be "available," there must be the "possibility of some relief . . . ." Booth, 532 U.S. at 738. Relying on Booth, the Ninth Circuit has held:

[A] prisoner need not press on to exhaust further levels of review once he has received all "available" remedies at an intermediate level of review or has been reliably informed by an administrator that no remedies are available.

Brown v. Valoff, 422 F.3d 926, 935 (9th Cir. 2005).

In the Ninth Circuit, motions to dismiss for failure to exhaust administrative remedies are normally brought under Rule 12(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See Albino v. Baca, ___ F.3d. ___, 2012 U.S. App LEXIS 19871 (9th Cir. Sept. 21, 2012). Nonetheless, it remains well established that credibility of witnesses over material factual disputes cannot be resolved on paper. Thus, when ruling on an exhaustion motion requires the court to look beyond the pleadings in the context of disputed issues of fact, the court must do so under "a procedure closely analogous to summary judgment." Wyatt v. Terhune, 315 F.3d 1108, 1119, n.14 (9th Cir. 2003). Doing so ensures that a process is followed to test whether disputes over facts pertaining to whether plaintiff actually exhausted available remedies are truly genuine and material and therefore warrant live testimony, or whether the dispute(s) may be disposed of by unrefuted declarations and exhibits. Therefore, following the suggestion in Wyatt, and because care must be taken not to resolve credibility on paper if it pertains to disputed issues of fact that are material to the outcome, the undersigned applies the Rule 56 standards to exhaustion motions that require consideration of materials extrinsic to the complaint.*fn1 See Chatman v. Felker, No. Civ. S-06-2912 LKK EFB, 2010 WL 3431806, at *2-3 (E.D. Cal. Aug. 31, 2010).

Failure to exhaust is an affirmative defense in the sense that defendants bear the burden of proving plaintiff did not exhaust available remedies. Wyatt, 315 F.3d at 1119. To bear this burden: a defendant must demonstrate that pertinent relief remained available, whether at unexhausted levels of the grievance process or through awaiting the results of the relief already granted as a result of that process. Relevant evidence in so demonstrating would include statutes, regulations, and other official directives that explain the scope of the administrative review process; documentary or testimonial evidence from prison officials who administer the review process; and information provided to the prisoner concerning the operation of the grievance procedure in this case . . . . With regard to the latter category of evidence, information provided [to] the prisoner is pertinent because it informs our determination of whether relief was, as a practical matter, "available."

Brown, 422 F.3d at 936-37 (citations omitted).

II. Background

Plaintiff commenced this action on June 6, 2011. Dckt. No. 1. On his form complaint, plaintiff checked the box indicating that the administrative exhaustion process had been completed, but also included a note that "CDCR refused to complete [the] process." Id. § II. Plaintiff explained that he had submitted an administrative appeal to the final level of review, but that it was returned to him on the grounds that it was missing documentation. Id. (Pl.'s Decl.)

¶ 11. Plaintiff claimed that he had done everything in his power to complete the exhaustion process. Id. ¶ 12. Two months after commencing this action, plaintiff filed a document titled "Notice Re Exhaustion of Administrative Remedy." Dckt. No. 7. Plaintiff explained that after protesting the rejection of his earlier filed appeal based on missing documentation, prison officials took action at the final level of review on July 11, 2011. Id.

Because plaintiff essentially admitted that he had not exhausted available administrative remedies prior to filing suit, the court recommended that this action be dismissed. Dckt. No. 8. However, plaintiff objected to those recommendations, contending that he had exhausted his administrative remedies prior to filing suit or alternatively, that he should be excused from exhaustion because of errors in the processing of his appeal. Dckt. No. 11. In light of plaintiff's allegations, and because the defendant has the burden of pleading and proving the absence of exhaustion, the court vacated the recommendation of dismissal, but made no finding regarding the issue of exhaustion. Dckt. No. 12. Subsequently, the court ...


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