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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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