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McClure v. Chen

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 27, 2017

GEORGE MCCLURE, Plaintiff,
v.
C.K. CHEN, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER DECLINING TO ADOPT FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS; DENYING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT WITHOUT PREJUDICE (Doc. No. 28.)

         Plaintiff George McClure is a state prisoner proceeding pro se with this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The matter was referred to a United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 302.

         This action proceeds on plaintiffs First Amended Complaint (“FAC”), filed February 9, 2015, in which plaintiff alleges that defendants C.K. Chen, M.D., and C. Horton, Physician Assistant violated his Eighth Amendment rights as a result of their deliberate indifference to his serious medical need. (Doc. No. 12.) In his FAC, plaintiff alleges as follows. Plaintiff is an epileptic with a long and documented history of seizures. (Id. at 6.) When plaintiff was incarcerated at Kern Valley State Prison (“KVSP”) in Delano, California, he informed medical staff and a screening nurse of his medical needs, and was given a lower bunk chrono prohibiting staff from housing him in an upper bunk. (Id. at 7.) Nevertheless, plaintiff was assigned to an upper bunk. (Id.) He subsequently experienced a seizure and fell from his bed, suffering a serious head injury and vision loss to his left eye. (Id.) Plaintiff met with defendants Dr. Chen and Physician Assistant Horton, who were aware of plaintiff's medical condition because they had access to his medical file and spoke with him about his injuries. (Id. at 8.) However, neither defendant provided plaintiff with treatment or pain medication for his eye. (Id.) As a result of defendants' failure to provide adequate medical care, plaintiffs' eye treatment was delayed for several months, and he ultimately lost vision in his left eye. (Id.)

         On March 25, 2016, defendants filed a motion for summary judgment as to plaintiff's deliberate indifference claims, arguing that they were entitled to judgment in their favor: (1) on the merits of plaintiff's claims; (2) because he had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies prior to filing suit; and (3) on qualified immunity grounds. (Doc. No. 28.) Plaintiff filed an opposition on June 20, 2016, and defendants filed a reply on June 27, 2017. (Doc. Nos. 37, 40.) On November 21, 2016, the assigned magistrate judge issued findings and recommendations recommending that defendants' be granted summary judgment due to plaintiff's failure to exhaust his administrative remedies prior to filing suit.[1] (Doc. No. 42.) On January 9, 2017, plaintiff filed his objections to the findings and recommendations. (Doc. No. 45.)

         In accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636 (b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 304, this court has conducted a de novo review of this case. Having carefully reviewed the entire file, including plaintiff's objections, the court declines to adopt the November 21, 2016 findings and recommendations, for the reasons stated below.

         EXHAUSTION UNDER THE PRISON LITIGATION REFORM ACT

         In the findings and recommendations, the assigned magistrate judge concluded that defendants were entitled to summary judgment on plaintiff's Eighth Amendment deliberate indifference claims due to plaintiff's failure to exhaust his administrative remedies prior to filing suit as required. (Doc. No. 42 at 11-14.)

         The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (“PLRA”), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e, provides that “[n]o 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 such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.” 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). The Ninth Circuit has recognized that

A grievance suffices to exhaust a claim if it puts the prison on adequate notice of the problem for which the prisoner seeks redress. To provide adequate notice, the prisoner need only provide the level of detail required by the prison's regulations.

Sapp v. Kimbrell, 623 F.3d 813, 824 (9th Cir. 2010) (citing Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 218 (2007)); see also Griffin v Arpaio, 557 F.3d 1117, 1120 (9th Cir. 2009) (“The primary purpose of a grievance is to alert the prison to a problem and facilitate its resolution, not to lay groundwork for litigation.).

         Thus, in this case “[t]he California prison system's requirements define the boundaries of proper exhaustion.” Marella v. Terhune, 568 F.3d 1024, 1027 (9th Cir. 2009). In California, prisoners may appeal “any policy, decision, action, condition, or omission by the department or its staff that the inmate or parolee can demonstrate as having a material adverse effect upon his or her health, safety, or welfare.” Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 3084.1(a). Most appeals progress through three levels of review. See Id. § 3084.7. The third level of review constitutes the decision of the Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”) and exhausts a prisoner's administrative remedies. See Id. 3084.7(d)(3). A California prisoner is required to submit an inmate appeal at the appropriate level and proceed to the highest level of review available to him. Butler v. Adams, 397 F.3d 1181, 1183 (9th Cir. 2005); Bennett v. King, 293 F.3d 1096, 1098 (9th Cir. 2002); see also Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 3084.1(b) (explaining that a cancellation or rejection of an inmate's appeal “does not exhaust administrative remedies”). However, 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, 936 (9th Cir. 2005) (citing Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731, 736-739 (2001)). Thus, an inmate “has no obligation to appeal from a grant of relief, or a partial grant that satisfies him, in order to exhaust his administrative remedies.” Harvey v. Jordan, 605 F.3d 681, 684-85 (9th Cir. 2010); see also Finley v. Skolnik, 616 Fed.Appx. 263, 264 (9th Cir. 2015)[2] (Reversing dismissal for failure to exhaust) .

         In submitting an inmate grievance, California regulations require a prisoner to “list all staff members involved” and to “describe their involvement in the issue.” Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 3084.2(3). However, the Ninth Circuit has recently held that “a prisoner exhausts such administrative remedies as are available . . . under the PLRA despite failing to comply with a procedural rule if prison officials ignore the procedural problem and render a decision on the merits of the grievance at each available step of the administrative process.” Reyes v. Smith, 810 F.3d 654, 658 (9th Cir. 2016); see also Franklin v. Foulk, 2017 WL 784894, at *4-5 (E.D. Cal. Mar. 1, 2017); Franklin v. Lewis, 2016 WL 4761081, at *6 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 13, 2016). Thus, a prisoner's failure to list all staff members involved in an incident in his inmate grievance, or to fully describe the involvement of staff members in the incident, will not necessarily preclude his exhaustion of administrative remedies. Reyes, 810 F.3d at 958; Franklin v. Foulk, 2017 WL 784894, at *4 (“[T]he court in Reyes found that even though the plaintiffs grievance failed to name two physicians on the prison's three-person pain committee, prison officials were put on notice of the nature of the wrong alleged in the suit-that the plaintiff was wrongfully denied pain medication.”); Franklin v. Lewis, 2016 WL 4761081, at *6 (“[T]o the extent Defendants argue that Plaintiff failed to comply with a procedural requirement by not naming Defendants in [his appeal], this deficiency is not necessarily fatal to Plaintiffs claim pursuant to Reyes”); Grigsby v. Munguia, No. 2:14-cv-o789 GAB AC P, 2016 WL 900197, at * 11-12 (E.D. Cal. Mar. 9, 2016); see also Bulkin v. Ochoa, 2016 WL 1267265, at *1-2 (E.D. Cal. Mar. 31, 2016).

         Nonetheless, for administrative remedies to be exhausted by California prisoners as to defendants who were not identified in the inmate grievance, there must be a “sufficient connection” between the claim in the appeal and the unidentified defendants such that prison officials can be said to have had “notice of the alleged deprivation” and an “opportunity to resolve it.” Reyes, 810 F.3d at 959 (finding that plaintiff had satisfied PLRA exhaustion requirements as to two prison doctors despite not having identified them in his inmate appeals because there was a sufficient connection between plaintiffs appeal based on inadequate pain management, and the doctors, who served on the prison committee that had denied plaintiff medication).

         The PLRA exhaustion requirement creates an affirmative defense, and defendants bear the burden of raising and proving the absence of exhaustion. See Jones, 549 U.S. at 216 (“[I]nmates are not required to specially plead or demonstrate exhaustion in their complaints.”) Moreover, a prisoner may be excused from complying with the PLRA's exhaustion requirement if he establishes that the existing administrative remedies were effectively unavailable to him. Albino v. Baca, 697 F.3d 1023, 1031 (9th Cir. 2012). For example, where prison officials improperly screen out inmate grievances, they render administrative remedies effectively unavailable. See Sapp v. Kimbrell, 623 F.3d 813, 823 (9th Cir. 2010). In such a case, “the inmate cannot pursue the necessary sequence of appeals.” Id; see also Nunez v. Duncan, 591 F.3d 1217, 1226 (9th Cir. 2010) (excusing an inmate's failure to exhaust because he was precluded from exhausting administrative remedies by a warden's mistaken instruction to him that a particular unavailable document was needed for him to pursue his inmate appeal).

         Here, the magistrate judge concluded that defendants were entitled to summary judgment as to plaintiffs Eighth Amendment claims alleging inadequate medical treatment based on deficient eye care, because plaintiff had not exhausted his administrative remedies prior to bringing suit. (Doc. No. 42 at 13.) The magistrate judge acknowledged that plaintiff had filed two inmate appeals concerning his eye condition, designated as KVSP-34-11-11231 (also referred to as KVSP-HC-34-11029840) and KVSP-HC-11031927, but concluded that his administrative remedies were not exhausted based on these inmate appeals because (i) KVSP-34-11-11231 was canceled at the second level of review; (ii) the inmate appeals did not identify Chen or Horton, the defendants named in the instant action; and (iii) the inmate appeals challenged the ...


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