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Hernandez v. Coffey

September 21, 2009

JOSÉ HERNÁNDEZ, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
KEVIN R. COFFEY, C.O., LAWRENCE J. FEATHERSTON, P.O., JAMES CHAMBERLAIN, SGT., M. TAYLOR, NURSE,*FN1 DEFENDANT-APPELLEES.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Appeal from a grant of summary judgment by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Pauley, J.) for the prisoner-plaintiff's failure to exhaust administrative remedies before initiating suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that he was beaten by defendant corrections officers and denied medical treatment by defendant nurse. The Court of Appeals (Leval, J.) vacates the district court's order and remands because the district court failed to provide adequate notice to pro se plaintiff of the procedural requirements and potential consequences of summary judgment, and failed to provide him adequate opportunity to seek discovery of and to submit evidence related to exhaustion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Leval, Circuit Judge

Argued: April 8, 2009

Before: JACOBS, Chief Judge, WALKER, and LEVAL, Circuit Judges.

José Hernández, an inmate at Clinton Correctional Facility, appeals from the grant of summary judgment by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Pauley, J.), dismissing Hernández's suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which alleged that he was beaten by defendant corrections officers and denied medical treatment by defendant nurse. Hernández, who is represented by counsel on this appeal, presented his case pro se (without an attorney acting on his behalf) in the district court. The court granted summary judgment on the ground that Hernández had not exhausted administrative remedies as required by 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), because he did not prosecute a grievance through all three stages of the Inmate Grievance Procedure ("IGP") provided by the New York State Department of Correctional Services ("DOCS"). Hernández claims that the IGP was not available to him because, when he filed a grievance at the first stage of the IGP, he received no response and his grievance was not assigned a grievance number. He also argues that, if he did fail to exhaust his administrative remedies, the failure was justified because he reasonably believed at the time that exhaustion was not required. Finally, Hernández argues that, because he was acting pro se at the time, the district court committed error in converting the defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) to a motion for summary judgment and dismissing his case without first explaining the procedural requirements for responding to such a motion and the potential consequences of the motion, and without providing him an opportunity to take discovery and to submit evidence to respond to the motion. We agree with the last contention. We therefore vacate the dismissal of the suit and remand for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

In his complaint, Hernandez alleged that he was attacked and seriously injured by the defendant corrections officers on November 5, 1998 during a transfer after his court appearance at Kings County Family Court. His complaint further alleged that, following the attack, he was denied medical care by Defendant Taylor, a nurse in the Downstate Correctional Facility medical center.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA") provides that "[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 . . . or any other Federal law, by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted." 42 U.S.C. §1997e(a). Exhaustion is "mandatory" and "applies to all inmate suits about prison life, whether they involve general circumstances or particular episodes." Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 524, 532 (2002). Section 1997e(a) requires "proper exhaustion," which "means using all steps that the agency holds out, and doing so properly (so that the agency addresses the issues on the merits)." Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 90 (2006) (internal quotation marks omitted) (emphasis in original).

The grievance procedure provided by DOCS consists of three stages. First, a grievance is filed with the Inmate Grievance Resolution Committee ("IGRC"). Next, if the decision by the IGRC is adverse to the inmate, the inmate may appeal the decision to the prison superintendent. Finally, the inmate may appeal the superintendent's decision to the Central Office Review Committee ("CORC"). Brownell v. Krom, 446 F.3d 305, 309 (2d Cir. 2006). The IGP sets time limits for each action in the grievance process. According to the rules in effect in 1998, when the conduct at issue occurred, the inmate's grievance must have been filed with the IGRC within fourteen days of the incident. The IGRC clerk would then number and log each grievance at the time of receipt. If the IGRC failed to reach an informal resolution with the complainant, the IGRC was then required to hold a hearing within seven days after receipt of the grievance and would render a decision within two working days of the hearing. Upon receiving the IGRC's written response, the inmate had four days to appeal to the superintendent. Upon receiving the superintendent's written response, the inmate had four days to appeal to the CORC. Matters not decided within the time limits could be appealed to the next step.

On November 29, 1999, Hernández filed the instant suit. His complaint asserted that he utilized the state prisoner grievance procedure by writing to the Commissioner of DOCS, the New York State Police, and the Dutchess County District Attorney. The district court held a conference to discuss whether Hernández had exhausted administrative remedies and, after the conference, ordered Hernández to "submit a sworn affidavit explaining the administrative remedies that he sought and attaching all letters submitted in connection with those requests." Hernández responded by affidavit, dated May 10, 2002, that he wrote letters on November 6, 1998 to the Commissioner of DOCS and the New York State Police, on November 16, 1998 to the Dutchess County District Attorney, and at some point to Chief Judge Griesa of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. He also argued in the affidavit that his letter to the Commissioner sufficed to exhaust administrative remedies. He argued further that the PLRA's exhaustion requirement did not apply to his case because the Supreme Court's 2002 decision in Porter, 534 U.S. 516, that exhaustion was required for suits involving isolated episodes as well as those involving general conditions, should not apply retroactively.

On June 28, 2002, the defendants filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) arguing that Hernández failed to exhaust administrative remedies because he failed to file grievances through the IGP. In an affidavit dated July 29, 2002, Hernández stated that he did file a grievance on November 10, 1998, but never received a response or a grievance number. He attached to the affidavit a handwritten "Inmate Grievance Complaint" dated November 6, 1998. The affidavit also stated that he wrote to the Clinton Correctional Facility inmate grievance office on February 15, 2000 requesting a response to his grievance, but never received one. Hernández explained that he failed to mention the grievance in his complaint because he never received a response to his grievance and because, at the time he filed suit, "it was held that exhaustion of administrative remedies was not required for prisoners['] claims of assault or excessive force." Finally, Hernández claimed to have "original copies" of additional grievance materials but stated that he could not submit them to the court because he could not "pay for copies."

In an order dated September 29, 2003, the district court granted the defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings, concluding that the Porter rule applied retroactively to Hernández's claims and that the materials submitted by Hernández did not serve to exhaust his administrative remedies. Hernández v. Coffey, No. 99 Civ. 11615 (WHP), 2003 WL 22241431, at *2-3 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 29, 2003). The district court did not decide whether the grievance submitted with Hernández's second affidavit was legitimate because, the court determined, even if Hernández had filed a grievance, he had not exhausted his appeals as required by the IGP. Id. at *4.

On Hernández's appeal, we vacated the district court's order and remanded for consideration of three issues identified by our decisions in Giano v. Goord, 380 F.3d 670 (2d Cir. 2004), and Hemphill v. New York, 380 F.3d 680 (2d Cir. 2004): (1) the extent to which administrative remedies were in fact available to the plaintiff; (2) whether the defendants should be estopped from asserting a failure to exhaust; and (3) whether the plaintiff was justified in failing to exhaust his administrative remedies. Hernández v. Coffey, No. 03-0303-pr (2d Cir. Jan. 20, 2005).

On remand, the district court considered only the parties' original 2002 submissions and did not permit any additional discovery, briefing, or evidentiary submissions. In an order dated July 26, 2006, the court converted the defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings to a motion for summary judgment and granted it. Hernández v. Coffey, No. 99 Civ. 11615 (WHP), 2006 WL 2109465, at *2, *4 (S.D.N.Y. July 26, 2006). The court determined that the lack of departmental response to Hernández's grievance did not excuse his failure to appeal as required by the IGP, so that administrative remedies were in fact available to him. Id. at *3. The court further found that Hernández identified no conduct by the defendants that prevented him from pursuing his IGP appeals. Id. at *4. Finally, the court concluded that the plaintiff's belief that exhaustion was not required ...


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