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7th Circuit rules on Indiana's prison grievance process

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Addressing a question for the first time about prison inmate complaints, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals held that a prisoner's participation in internal affairs investigations isn’t an alternative for the administrative process an inmate must follow in filing a grievance.

But the federal appellate panel didn't say what happens if prison officials mislead an inmate about what he or she must do or the relief received when participating in that kind of internal investigation behind bars.

In its decision Tuesday in Christopher R. Pavey v. Patrick Conley, No. 3:03-CV-662, the 7th Circuit examined a case from U.S. Judge Robert Miller in the Northern District of Indiana.

This is the third time in the past five years that the federal appeals court has ruled on this offender suit, which involves an inmate incarcerated at Indiana State Prison for a 1998 murder in Shelby County. Christopher Pavey claims that state prison officials violently removed him from his cell in October 2001 and, in the process, broke his arm. He filed a complaint about the incident about three months after it happened, saying that the injury to his writing arm and hand prevented him from using the required pre-printed form to file a grievance within 48 hours. Although Pavey could have asked a prison official to assist him in filing that grievance, the inmate didn't do that. But Pavey did talk with another guard about 12 hours after the incident, and he alleged that the cell removal was retaliation by another guard because of his history of filing 10 past grievances.

That discussion resulted in an internal prison investigation, which did not produce evidence of prison misconduct and resulted in Pavey being disciplined for his role in the altercation. But Pavey argued that his participation in that initial investigation and what prison officials led him to believe about starting the grievance process satisfied his requirements in filing a claim about the incident.

The 7th Circuit remanded the case in 2006 because of factual disputes, and in 2008 the court reversed Miller’s ruling that held Pavey had the right to a jury trial on any debatable fact issue relating to a failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The Supreme Court of the United States declined to consider that issue.

After that last remand, the District court held an evidentiary hearing and determined Pavey didn't exhaust his administrative remedies. That's the subject of this current appellate ruling.

The appellate panel found no error in what the District court decided and ruled that Pavey's testimony about what prison officials told him didn't coincide with what prison staff and evidence showed. The judges pointed to the magistrate judge's thought that Pavey "had spun a fantastic yarn" and found that Pavey didn't request assistance as he should have in filing the grievance. While Pavey argued that the prison administrative procedures are "silent as to what an inmate must do to properly initiative the grievance process when seeking staff assistance in filing a grievance," the 7th Circuit judges disagreed and found the rules are very clear about the required procedures.

"Perhaps what Pavey means to say is not that he complied with the procedures for initiating the grievance process, but rather that he accomplished the same objective by participating in an internal-affairs investigation," Judge Diane Sykes wrote for the panel that also included Judges David Hamilton and Diane Wood. "This argument raises a question this Circuit has not addressed: Does participating in an internal-affairs investigation exhaust a prisoner's available administrative remedies under Sec. 1997e(a)?"

The panel relied on rationale from the 6th and 9th Circuit Courts of Appeals, which have addressed the question and held that participation in an internal prison investigation is no substitute for an available grievance process. They found the law is concerned with "remedies" made available to prisoners while an internal-affairs investigation doesn't ordinarily offer a remedy to prisoners on the receiving end of the employee's malfeasance.

"And even if the internal-affairs investigation could result in some relief for the prisoner, the Supreme Court (of the United States) has rejected suggestion that prisoners are permitted to pick and choose how to present their concerns to prison officials," Sykes wrote. "If a prisoner can be required to submit his grievance in the particular manner and within the precise period of time designated by the prison's administrative procedures, then he must also be required to present his grievance in the proper forum."

As far as prison staff misleading an inmate into thinking that participation in an investigation could jump start the grievance process, the 7th Circuit looked to its own caselaw and other federal precedent to point out that an administrative remedy isn't "available" and doesn't need to be exhausted if prison officials erroneously or inaccurately inform someone about a remedy or how he or she needs to pursue it. Without drawing a bright line or holding any standard on that broader question, the 7th Circuit in this case found that Pavey's testimony proves he was not mislead as he claimed.
 

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  1. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  2. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  3. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

  4. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

  5. "No one is safe when the Legislature is in session."

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