7th Circuit overturns summary judgment, gives inmate another chance to litigate grievance

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An inmate who was not given the necessary paperwork to file a grievance will get to litigate his Eighth Amendment complaint in federal court after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals issued the reminder that administrative remedies provided to prisoners must be “available in fact and not merely in form.”

Eric Gooch, a federal prisoner in the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, filed a Bivens action in December 2019 against two correctional officers. He alleged the two guards — identified in court documents as Lt. S. Young and Officer J. Wilson — encouraged another inmate to assault him.

Three days after the attack, Gooch filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana against Young and Wilson for violating his Eighth Amendment rights. The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing Gooch had not exhausted his administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act before filing his lawsuit.

Gooch countered that he had tried to use the administrative process, but officials would not give him the grievance form. Also, he alleged multiple guards began to threaten him with bodily harm if he filed the grievance. He told the district court he feared for his life and thought by filing a lawsuit, he would get protection.

The Southern Indiana District Court found for the defendants. In granting summary judgment, the court reasoned that even though Gooch did not have the proper form and was receiving threats, he still had the option of sending his request directly to the regional office.

But finding exhaustion was not required because of how Gooch was treated by the prison guards, the 7th Circuit vacated the summary judgment order and remanded for further proceedings.

“The defendants were not entitled to summary judgment because they did not demonstrate that administrative remedies were available to Gooch and Gooch provided evidence to the contrary,” the court ruled in a per curiam opinion in Eric Gooch v. S. Young and J. Wilson, 21-1702.

Young and Wilson had argued Gooch should have been more persistent in getting a grievance form before “rushing to court.” But pointing to Hill v. Snyder, 817 F.3d 1037 (7th Cir. 2016), the 7th Circuit described that proposal as “unworkable” and noted the PLRA does not require prisoners to “go on scavenger hunts just to take the first step toward filing a grievance.”

Also, the panel found the suggestion that Gooch could have filed directly with the regional office was “hard to square with (Bureau of Prisons) regulations.” Although an inmate is allowed to submit “sensitive” content to the regional director, the government did not establish that Gooch’s matter would be considered sensitive. Moreover, he still would have been required to file a grievance form.

“Under Hill and (Dale v. Lappin, 376 F.3d 652 (7th Cir. 2004)), the prison’s refusal to provide the form suffices to show that Gooch did not have administrative remedies available. But he also attested that prison officials threatened and intimidated him to prevent him from reporting the defendants’ conduct. An administrative remedy that a prison is required to exhaust under the PLRA must be ‘available in fact and not merely in form,’” the court held, citing Schultz v. Pugh, 728 F.3d 619, 620 (7th Cir. 2013).

“A remedy is not considered ‘available’ to an inmate who is prevented by threats or intimidation by prison officials from submitting a grievance according to the prescribed policies,” the court concluded.

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