7th Circuit: Prisoner failed to exhaust administrative remedies before filing 8th Amendment suit

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An Indiana inmate who alleged a doctor and nurse were deliberately indifferent to his medical needs has failed to convince the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals that his appeal is not precluded by his failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

The case of Shawn Williams v. Naveen Rajoli and Tara Powers, 20-1963, started in 2019.

Shawn Williams, an inmate at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, suffers from chronic tendinitis in his left knee, for which he was prescribed pain medication.

After injuring his pinky finger, Williams received an X-ray and was seen by Dr. Naveen Rajoli on July 19, 2019. Williams’ finger did not require further treatment, but in an apparent error he was removed from his pain medication.

The next day, Williams filed a “Request for Health Care” form with prison officials indicating that he was still experiencing pain in his knee and that he was no longer receiving his medication. Williams was seen by nurse Tara Powers, and he alleged that during his appointment she caused him further knee pain by making him do exercises while handcuffed and shackled. His pain medication also was not reinstated.

Williams subsequently submitted two informal grievances to Amy Wright, Wabash Valley’s director of nursing, between July 23 and July 28. The first protested the medication discontinuation and the second challenged his medical treatment.

Williams claimed he submitted the informal requests through the prison’s internal mail system, but the prison has no record of them and he never made copies. Prison officials never replied to either of the informal grievance attempts.

After not receiving a response to his two July attempts at informal resolution, Williams submitted two more informal grievances on Aug. 5. Williams made handwritten copies of the August forms and subsequent informal grievance forms.

Meanwhile, the 10-day time limit for him to file a formal grievance was ticking down. Williams had until Aug. 2 to file a formal grievance about being removed from his medication on July 19, and until Aug. 6 to file a formal grievance regarding Powers’ treatment on July 23.

Williams submitted two more informal grievances, one on Aug. 12 and another on Aug. 15. He also submitted a “Request for Health Care” form on Aug. 12.

Wright responded to Williams’s request for health care on Aug. 19, indicating that Williams had seen Rajoli on July 19, his medications had been stopped and he was scheduled to see a different doctor that day.

On Aug. 20, Williams filed his first formal grievance.

Prison officials returned the formal grievance to Williams on Aug. 29 for failure to comply with the filing deadline of 10 business days.

Williams did not revise and resubmit the formal grievance. Instead, he filed a pro se 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana against Rajoli and Powers alleging they were deliberately indifferent to his medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Rajoli and Powers moved for summary judgment, arguing that Williams failed to exhaust administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act by failing to file a timely formal grievance, and the court granted the motion.

Williams appealed and sought permission to proceed in forma pauperis. The judge denied that request, finding an appellate challenge to whether Williams had exhausted his administrative remedies would not be in good faith. Williams challenged that decision in the 7th Circuit, and a motions panel authorized him to proceed in forma pauperis and recruited pro bono counsel to assist him on appeal.

Back at the 7th Circuit, appellate judges agreed with the Indiana Southern District Court, affirming summary judgment.

“Not receiving a reply to a request for an informal resolution is not the functional equivalent of being denied a formal grievance form,” Chief Judge Diane Sykes wrote. “… (Williams) believed that he was erroneously taken off his medication and that his medication should be reinstated, and he further believed that the nurse who treated him on July 23 should be disciplined for making him do exercises that caused him further pain. Williams made exactly these arguments in both informal grievances and in his untimely formal grievance.

“Indiana’s policies don’t call for more specificity than that,” Sykes wrote. “The administrative remedies were fully available to Williams; he just failed to exhaust them.”

Also, for the first time on appeal, Williams argued his failure to timely file a formal grievance should be excused for good cause.

“But Williams never made that argument in his formal grievance. Nor did his formal grievance specifically mention the most pertinent fact to his good-cause claim — that he submitted timely informal grievances in July and waited to file a formal grievance because he mistakenly believed that he needed to wait for a response,” Sykes wrote. “And Williams did not correct this error by revising and resubmitting his formal grievance within the required deadline of five business days. Williams thus failed to exhaust his good-cause argument, just like he failed to exhaust his other claims.”

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