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Summary judgment in favor of New Castle prison employees reversed

December 27, 2016

An Indiana inmate can continue his case against prison officials he said prohibited him from bringing his case before the U.S. Supreme Court after the Indiana Court of Appeals decided Tuesday that summary judgment in favor of the officials was erroneous.

Roy A. Smith was imprisoned at the New Castle Correctional Facility in 2014 when he gave Keith Butts, Jenny Gibson, Amber Berry, Misty Cecil and Amie Williams, officials who worked at the correctional facility, a writ of certiorari to be mailed to the United States Supreme Court. Smith also asked the officials to mail a motion for an extension of time to file the writ, expecting that it would be mailed to the Supreme Court clerk by the Jan. 6, 2015, filing deadline.

However, on Jan. 20, 2015, the clerk sent Smith a letter indicating that his motion for enlargement of time was untimely because it was postmarked Jan. 8 and received Jan. 16. Smith received the letter on Feb. 17 and filed an informal grievance against Perry and Butts on Feb. 18, alleging that they had failed to properly handle his legal mail, thus resulting in the untimely ending of his federal case.  Cecil responded and denied the informal grievance on Feb. 20, and Smith was given 10 days to respond.

Instead, on Feb. 21, Smith filed a formal grievance claiming that Perry, Butts and Cecil failed to timely send out his legal mail, but the grievance coordinator denied the formal grievance on March 9, claiming that Smith filed it more than 20 days after the incident.

Also on Feb. 21, Smith submitted a second informal grievance alleging that Butts and other unnamed DOC employees in the mail room and law library mishandled his legal mail. That grievance was also denied on Feb. 24, and Smith was given 10 days to file a formal grievance, which he did the same day. His second formal grievance was denied on the basis of a late filing and on the premise that Smith should have consulted with the law library staff to see if he could seek relief under the “mailbox rule.”

The inmate filed a suit against the prison officials on June 8, 2015, claiming he was deprived of his First and 14th Amendment rights from pursuing litigation in federal court. Both parties moved for summary judgment, which was granted to the prison officials and denied to Smith on the basis that he had not exhausted his administrative remedies, thus leading to a lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Smith appealed in Roy A. Smith v. Keith Butts, Jenny Gibson, Amber Berry, Misty Cecil, and Amie Williams, 3304-1606-PL-1295, arguing that the summary judgment decisions were erroneous. The Indiana Court of Appeals partially agreed Tuesday, with Senior Judge Carr Darden writing that the Henry Circuit Court had erred in determining that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction because failure to exhaust administrative remedies is a procedural error and does not give rise to a jurisdictional defect.

Further, Darden wrote that the prison officials had the burden of proving that Smith failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, a burden they did not meet because Smith demonstrated disputes of material fact as to whether he complied with the procedural rules governing the grievance process, specifically rules regarding grievance deadlines.

In a similar vein, Darden wrote that the denial of summary judgment to Smith was appropriate because of those disputes of material fact. Thus, summary judgment in favor of the officials was reversed and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

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