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Does v. Michigan Department of Corrections

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

March 14, 2017

JOHN DOES 1-12, Plaintiffs,
v.
MICHIGAN DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et al., Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS’ MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AGAINST PLAINTIFFS JOHN DOE 8, 9, AND 10, AND DENYING SUMMARY JUDGMENT AGAINST PLAINTIFF JOHN DOE 12

          ROBERT H. CLELAND UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the court is Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment against Plaintiffs John Does 8, 9, 10, and 12. (Dkt. #193.) Plaintiffs have filed a response, (Dkt. #198), and Defendants have filed a reply, (Dkt. #202). After reviewing the briefs, the court concludes that no hearing necessary. See E.D. Mich. LR 7.1(f)(2). For the following reasons, the court will grant in part and deny in part Defendants’ motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs are several former juvenile prisoners who had been imprisoned alongside adults in Defendant Michigan Department of Corrections (“MDOC”) facilities. Plaintiffs allege that they suffered physical injuries and sexual abuse as a result of this policy by MDOC. Plaintiffs have filed their action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as well as 18 U.S.C. §§ 1591 and 1594. This court granted summary judgment against John Does 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, and 7 on February 8, 2016, for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, reserving for bench trial the question of whether Doe 3's failure to exhaust may have been excused by efforts to thwart his filing of grievances. (Dkt. #156.) Thereafter the court granted Plaintiffs leave to amend their complaint to add five new John Does as Plaintiffs, John Does 8-12. (Dkt. #162.) The court then denied a motion by Plaintiffs to reconsider its earlier partial grant of summary judgment, (Dkt. #188), and Defendants filed the instant motion seeking summary judgment against Does 8, 9, 10, and 12 (“Does”) on the basis that they, too, failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. (Dkt. #193.)

         Thereafter the court denied Plaintiffs’ request for extended discovery into the questions of alternative exhaustion methods and a supposed policy prohibiting transferred prisoners from pursuing the grievance process related to their incarceration at the prior facility. (Dkt. #194.) The court deemed the former question irrelevant in light of its holding on the prior summary judgment motion that no alternative methods of satisfying the exhaustion requirement existed, and it deemed the latter question to be unsupported in light of the MDOC Operating Procedure which outlines a process for pursuing exactly those kinds of grievances. Three months after the instant motion was filed, Plaintiffs still had not submitted any response brief in opposition. The court ordered submission of such a brief, (Dkt. #196), and Plaintiffs complied, (Dkt. #198).

         Defendants argue that the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), requires that cases brought under federal law challenging prison conditions require that Plaintiffs first exhaust their available administrative remedies. They claim that Does were aware of the MDOC grievance policy and did not avail themselves of it prior to filing suit. Specifically, they argue that Does 8 and 9 admitted in their discovery responses and affidavit that they did not file grievances in connection with the incidents which are the subject of this suit, and their requests for protection are not sufficient to substitute for properly exhausting the grievance process. They also argue that although John Doe 10 filed several grievances, they were all either rejected, denied, or resolved without appeal through all three appellate steps prior to suit as required under the MDOC policy and the PLRA. Defendants claim that the same is true of John Doe 12 and that his grievances do not relate to the incidents which are the subject of this suit with the exception that one grievance filed while John Doe 12 was an adult,[1] alleged sexual harassment by older prisoners, was denied, and was unsuccessfully appealed through all three steps. However, Defendants contend that even that grievance does not satisfy the exhaustion requirements because it failed to name several of the Defendants to this action and thus did not provide them notice and an opportunity to resolve the problem, and that it is irrelevant to the subject matter of the instant suit involving a policy of housing minors with adults.

         Plaintiffs respond that their constitutional challenges to the MDOC policy are not subject to an exhaustion requirement, that the factual record supports an interpretation that the Plaintiffs did attempt to satisfy the exhaustion requirement even though they were not permitted access to extended discovery, and that unique barriers to satisfying the exhaustion requirement exist for victims of sexual assaults, which justifies a relaxed standard. They argue that the MDOC policy allows prisoners to submit reports of sexual misconduct through verbal or written reports to any staff member or the MDOC sexual abuse hotline in addition to the normal grievance process.

         Plaintiffs argue that each John Doe has met the requirement under this expanded and relaxed matrix. They claim that John Doe 8 verbally reported sexual harassment to corrections officers but was punished; then he reported misconduct to a resident unit supervisor and was told nothing could be done; and ultimately submitted a grievance against a corrections officer after his transfer to another prison but was subject to retaliation and encouraged to dismiss the grievance. According to Plaintiffs, John Doe 9 reported sexual assaults to staff on three occasions but was ignored, told to “get used to it” or accused of lying and placed in segregation. They claim that John Doe 10 was retaliated against by corrections officers after reporting harassment to a sergeant, denied access to grievance forms when he requested them, or disciplined for filing grievances. Finally, they argue that John Doe 12 reported his assault to prison staff but was threatened with transfer to a facility away from his family.

         Plaintiffs also argue that the claims alleged here regarding the MDOC policy were not grievable under the MDOC grievance rules, which prohibited grievances which involve a significant number of prisoners or which attack the content of a policy of procedure as these claims plainly do. Since they cannot be grieved in the first place, the argument goes, these claims are not subject to the formal grievance exhaustion requirement. Additionally, Plaintiffs claim that the grievance procedure is not mandatory in cases involving sexual misconduct.

         Finally, Plaintiffs argue that the PLRA only requires that Plaintiffs exhaust those administrative remedies which are truly available to the inmate. They claim that threats of retaliation by other inmates and staff, efforts to thwart Plaintiffs’ ability to submit formal grievances, and Plaintiffs’ lack of knowledge or understanding about the grievance process all excuse a lack of strict compliance with the formal exhaustion procedure. They claim that Plaintiffs exhausted their administrative remedies to the extent that any were truly available to them.

         Defendants reply that Plaintiffs’ arguments miss the mark because the court’s prior order on summary judgment determined that no alternative avenues satisfied the PLRA exhaustion requirement. They continue that, in any case, the Defendants to the instant suit did not themselves engage in any misconduct nor are they identified in the original grievances or complaints. Defendants also assert that the claims at issue are grievable, because they are based on specific instances of MDOC housing policy and the conduct of staff; it would not be appropriate for the court to permit Plaintiffs to sidestep the exhaustion requirement merely by styling their complaint as a putative class action. They argue that the theory that MDOC policy is not grievable has already been rejected by this court, and that Plaintiffs’ authority holding that sexual misconduct is not subject to the exhaustion requirement is mistaken. Finally, they argue that failure to exhaust was not excused as Defendants have not been identified as attempting to thwart the grievance process, John Does 8, 10, and 12 all actively filed grievances against staff on other grounds, that Plaintiffs received training on the grievance process, that any fears of retaliation do not meet the “serious threat of substantial retaliation” standard required to excuse exhaustion, and that allegations that Plaintiffs did not understand the grievance procedure lacked factual support.

         II. STANDARD

         Summary judgment is proper “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). “In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, drawing all reasonable inferences in that party’s favor.” Sagan v. United States, 342 F.3d 493, 497 (6th Cir. 2003). The movant has the initial burden of showing the absence of a genuine dispute as to a material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). “[T]hat burden may be discharged by showing . . . that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case.” Bennett v. City of Eastpointe, 410 F.3d 810, 817 (6th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The burden then shifts to the nonmovant, who must put forth enough evidence to show that there exists “a genuine issue for trial.” Horton v. Potter, 369 F.3d 906, 909 (6th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). Summary judgment is not appropriate when “the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 243 (1986). In evaluating a summary judgment motion, “the judge’s function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial . . . ...


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