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Summary judgment vacated for prison officers accused of beating prisoner

February 7, 2018

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has vacated summary judgment for two correctional officers accused of attacking a prisoner unprovoked, determining the evidence could support the inference that the prisoner did all he could to exhaust his administrative remedies, yet was prevented from doing so.

In Terry Davis v. David Mason and Blake Thrasher, 16-2707, Terry Davis filed a federal lawsuit after David Mason and Blake Thrasher allegedly assaulted him, resulting in two black eyes, broken teeth and a possibly broken nose. Davis filed his initial prison grievance five days after the incident, but the form was returned for a “classification” issue and because it was “not completely filled out,” though no explanation about the deficiencies was offered.

Davis was instructed to contact Internal Affairs, but instead he tried to resubmit his grievance. As before, the grievance was returned for a “classification” issue, and he was instructed to contact Internal Affairs for an investigation. The grievance coordinator also told Davis to contact his “unit team for the separate issue,” though she did not elaborate as to what issue she was referring to.

Davis continued to resubmit his grievance form on two additional occasions, but it was returned each time. The grievance counselor indicated the subsequent filings — submitted in early March 2014 after the Jan. 5 incident — were untimely, but she forwarded a copy to Internal Affairs.

No other administrative review was performed, and Davis proceeded with his federal complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. In response, Mason and Thrasher asserted Davis failed to exhaust his administrative remedies and moved for summary judgment.

Judge Tanya Walton Pratt ruled in the correction officers’ favor, finding Davis’ grievances were inadequate to show failure of administrative remedies. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, however, vacated that ruling on appeal.

Judge Diane Sykes wrote in a Tuesday opinion that Mason and Thrasher failed to meet their burden of proving Davis did not exhaust his administrative remedies. Though they argued the repeated instructions for Davis to contact Internal Affairs was the first step in the grievance process — attempted informal resolution — Sykes said the grievance coordinator never indicated to Davis that his submissions failed to complete that step.

Additionally, contact with Internal Affairs is not included in any step of the informal resolution process, Sykes said. Further, administrative remedies can be found to be unavailable to a prisoner if, as here, prison officials “inaccurately describe the steps he needs to take to pursue it.”

“And the grievance coordinator did not elaborate on how Davis could fix any of these perceived shortcomings,” Sykes wrote. ‘The grievance policy specifically required her to explain ‘how (the form) may be corrected.’”

Thus, a reasonable factfinder could conclude Davis did all he could to follow the prison grievance process, so the grant of summary judgment was vacated, and the case remanded for further proceedings.

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