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Williams v. Gore

United States District Court, S.D. California

March 24, 2017

WILLIAM D. GORE, Sheriff, et al., Defendant.



         Presently before the Court is the Report and Recommendation (“R&R”), (Doc. No. 74), of Magistrate Judge Peter C. Lewis recommending this Court grant Defendants' motion for summary judgment, (Doc. No. 52), and deny Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, (Doc No. 50). Plaintiff James Michael Williams, a state prisoner proceeding pro se, has filed a timely Objection. (Doc. No. 78.) After a review of the parties' pleadings and the entire record before it, the Court DECLINES IN PART the R&R, OVERRULES IN PART AND SUSTAINS IN PART Plaintiff's objections, DENIES Defendants' motion for summary judgment, and DENIES Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment.


         On March 23, 2015, Plaintiff James Michael Williams (“Plaintiff”), a prisoner proceeding pro se, filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his Eighth Amendment rights from an alleged denial of medical care while incarcerated in the San Diego County jail system. (Doc. No. 1.) The complaint makes claims against San Diego County Sheriff William D. Gore in his capacity as policy maker for the San Diego County jails and the Medical Director of the County jail later identified as Dr. Alfred Joshua, M.D., (“Defendants”). (Doc. Nos. 1, 58.) Specifically, Plaintiff alleges Defendants denied him medical care for two injuries: first, for a knee injury sustained prior to his March 9, 2011 incarceration at the George Bailey Detention Facility (“GBDF”), and second, for a facial injury sustained in an attack by another prisoner on April 3, 2011. (Doc. No. 1 at 3-4.) Plaintiff further alleges that jail personnel ignored two-Court ordered referrals for treatment and surgery for his alleged conditions. (Id. at 4.)

         On his form complaint, Plaintiff checked a box indicating that he exhausted all forms of administrative relief for the alleged denial of medical care before filing suit, but admits that he was not able to fully exhaust the inmate administrative grievance procedure because “there exist no viable exhaustion with the Medical Department when every verbal request for my leg surgery was ignored with a reply ‘you' must wait to be evaluated by our doctor.” (Id. at 6.) Plaintiff additionally claims that his “written request/complaints were not responded to.” (Id.) Plaintiff contends that “all attempts to secure a reply, written reason, were a frivolous act, and there exist in this specific instance no viable exhaustion available.” (Id.)

         On May 21, 2015, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies prior to filing suit. (Doc. No. 9.) The Court denied Defendants' motion on procedural grounds so as to allow the parties to “flesh out the details of the exhaustion issue.” (Doc. Nos. 18, 19.) On August 1, 2016, Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis that Defendants' failure to provide Plaintiff with the necessary surgeries to treat his facial and knee/leg injuries constituted deliberate indifference. (Doc. No. 50.) On August 29, 2016, Defendants filed a second motion for summary judgment again in part on the failure to exhaust issue. (Doc. No. 52.) On October 20, 2016, Plaintiff opposed Defendants' motion. (Doc. No. 64.)

         A. Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment

         Defendants describe the administrative remedy available at the jail and allege Plaintiff's failure to exhaust such remedy. Defendants proffer the declaration of Lieutenant Derick Jones, who describes the San Diego County jails' administrative grievance procedure, by which all prisoner grievances are addressed. (Doc. 52-6 ¶¶ 1-7.) Grievance forms are readily available for all prisoners to complete and submit, with three levels of subsequent review wherein jail facility personnel can resolve the grievance. (Id. at 2-3.) Each level of review provides the prisoner with a written response and a resolution, or reasons for its denial. (Id.) Written grievances may be submitted in one of two ways: (1) by placing them in a locked grievance box located outside the housing module, in which case the second page of the form would be signed and returned to the inmate “within a couple of days;” or (2) by handing them to a deputy or staff member, who, in his or her discretion, will sign and return the second page of the grievance form. (Id.) Inmates are instructed to keep a copy of this receipt for their records. (Id.) The rules state that a written grievance will be answered within 10 days, and each time a grievance is appealed to a higher level of command, it will invoke another 10-day response period. (Id.) The rules further state that there are three levels of review for grievances, and the inmate can submit the grievance for review to the third and final level of grievance review, which is conducted by the Facility Commander. (Id.)

         Defendants provide evidence that Plaintiff was aware of the Sheriff's administrative grievance procedure because he had previously used it to address concerns about library access, mail issues, and how the jail responded to his previous grievances. (Id. at 3-4.) Lt. Jones ultimately attests that Plaintiff never submitted a grievance regarding the alleged failure to provide medical care for either his leg/knee or face, and never pursued exhaustion at any level of review in the jail process. (Id. ¶¶ 17-18.)

         B. Plaintiff's Opposition

         In response, Plaintiff confirms he is “very familiar” with the administrative grievance process. (Doc. 64 at 21.) Plaintiff states in this instance, he submitted six grievances regarding the jail's failure to provide medical care-three regarding his leg/knee injury and three regarding his facial injuries. (Id.) Plaintiff states that he could not secure a deputy or guard to sign off on any of his six grievances. (Id. at 27.) Rather, Plaintiff submitted all of his grievances in the locked grievance box. (Id. at 30.) However, Plaintiff contends Defendants never responded, nor returned any copies of the submitted grievances to Plaintiff. (Id. at 21, 31.)

         Plaintiff proffers declarations from two inmates, Leonardo V. Pena and Patrick Stanley Pawlicki, to demonstrate that administrative remedies were effectively unavailable to Plaintiff. (Id. at 58-61.) First, inmate Pena attests that he “heard deputies/guards tell inmates to put their grievances in the designated grievance box, ” but refused to sign-off on such grievances personally, and that “some guards would sign-off, where others would not.” (Id. at 59.) He further attests that in the majority of cases, guards told inmates to put their grievances, especially the serious ones like staff abuse, in the box rather than sign off on them. (Id.) Second, inmate Pawlicki similarly attests that “on many occasions I witnessed the jailers tell inmates to put their grievances in the grievance box” and “not signing off on the grievance so that the inmate would have a copy of it.” (Id. at 61.) He further declared that inmates would “complain when jailers would not sign-off, because they wanted proof of their grievances being filed/sent.” (Id.)

         C. Plaintiff's Objection to the R&R

         Attached to Plaintiff's timely-filed Objection is his signed declaration. (Doc. No. 78 at 14-23.) Plaintiff attests, in detail, to the dates and circumstances regarding each time he submitted a grievance seeking medical care for his leg/knee and facial injuries. (Id.) Plaintiff further attests to never receiving a response from the jail regarding those grievances. (Id. at 19.)

         Legal Standards

         I. Review of the Report and Recommendation

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b) and 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) provide a district judge's duties regarding a magistrate judge's report and recommendation. The district judge should “make a de novo determination of those portions of the report to which the objection is made, ” and “may accept, reject, or modify in whole or in part, the finding or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C); see also United States v. Remsing, 874 F.2d 614, 617 (9th Cir. 1989).

         II. The Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”)

         Section 1997e(a) of the PLRA requires prisoners to exhaust all available administrative remedies before filing a § 1983 action in federal court. See 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). Congress enacted the PLRA in part to “allow prison officials a chance to resolve disputes regarding the exercise of their responsibilities before being haled into court; to reduce the number of prison suits; and to improve the quality of suits that are filed by producing a useful administrative record.” Garcia v. Miller, No. 14cv2266-LAB (BGS), 2015 WL 5794552, at *4 (S.D. Cal. Oct. 2, 2015). With the passage of the PLRA, the exhaustion requirement was strengthened-it is “no longer left to the discretion of the district court, but is mandatory.” Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 85 (2006); Ross v. Blake, 136 S.Ct. 1850, 1857 (“[M]andatory exhaustion statutes like the PLRA establish mandatory exhaustion regimes, foreclosing judicial discretion.”). “The obligation to exhaust ‘available' remedies persists as long as some remedy remains ‘available.' Once that is no longer the case, then there are no ‘remedies … available, ' and the prisoner need not further pursue the grievance.” Brown v. Valoff, 422 F.3d 926, 935 (9th Cir. 2005) (quoting Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731, 739-41 (2001)). “Failure to exhaust is fatal to a prisoner's claim.” Bush v. Baca, No. CV 08-1217-SJO (PJW), 2010 WL 4718512, at *3 (C.D. Cal. Sept. 3, 2010).

         However, “[a] federal court may nonetheless excuse a prisoner's failure to exhaust if the prisoner takes ‘reasonable and appropriate steps' to exhaust administrative remedies but prison officials render administrative relief ‘effectively unavailable.' Ellis v. Navarro, No. C 07-05126 SBA (PR), 2011 WL 845902, at *1 (N.D. Cal. March 8, 2011). The mandatory exhaustion requirement under the PLRA is excused in three circumstances: (1) when an administrative procedure “operates as a simple dead end-with officers unable or consistently unwilling to provide any relief to aggrieved inmates”; (2) when “an administrative scheme might be so opaque that it becomes, practically speaking, incapable of use”; and (3) when “a grievance process is rendered unavailable when prison administrators thwart inmates from taking advantage of it through machination, misrepresentation, or intimidation.” Ross, 136 S.Ct. at 1853-54. “Proper exhaustion demands compliance with an agency's deadlines and other critical procedural rules.” Woodford, 548 U.S. at 92. “The relevant rules governing exhaustion are not defined by the PLRA, ‘but by the prison grievance process itself.'” Ayala v. Fermon, No. 14-cv-1794 GPC (JLB), 2017 WL 836193, at *5 (S.D. Cal. March 2, 2017) (quoting Jones v. Block, 549 U.S. 199, 219 (2007)). “Exhaustion should be decided, if feasible, before reaching the merits of a prisoner's claim.” Albino v. Baca, 747 F.3d 1162, 1170 (9th Cir. 2014) (en banc).

         III. Motion for Summary Judgment ...

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