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Prisoner Did Exhaust State Remedies in Civil Rights Claim

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on April 22, 2015 3:54 PM

Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, state prisoners asserting a civil rights violation have to show that they've exhausted all their state administrative remedies before going into federal court.

The problem is that, not infrequently, these "remedies" are so difficult or impossible to pursue that they've functionally nonexistent. That's what happened to Moliere Dimanche Jr., a prisoner in Florida who says his claims of retaliation by prison guards fell on deaf ears.

That's Some Serious 'Shawshank' Stuff

As retaliation for filing grievances about prison conditions, Dimanche claimed that he was "sprayed him with 'an overwhelming amount' of teargas" and locked in solitary confinement for 60 days. When he was let out, he claims, "Acting Warden Colonel Brown ordered that he remain in disciplinary confinement past his scheduled release date so that the guards could gas him there," which he claimed they did. Corrections officers then fabricated disciplinary reports against him and threatened more tear gas if he filed more grievances.

Fearing reprisal if he filed further reports at the prison level, Dimanche sent a grievance directly to the state secretary of corrections containing a factual account of his accusations and explaining why he felt he couldn't use the prison's grievance system.

The secretary's office instead sent the grievance form back, telling Dimanche it could do nothing until he submitted an appeal inside his prison. The letter told him he had 15 days to do so, but Dimanche says he received the letter "well after the 15 days had expired."

Bring in Warden Kafka

Naturally, the prison moved to dismiss Dimanche's federal lawsuit for failure to exhaust his state remedies. The district court agreed, but the Eleventh Circuit reversed, finding that Dimanche clearly and correctly indicated why he felt he couldn't appeal his grievance at his institution.

The Florida Administrative Code outlines the requirements for an inmate claiming that staff have threatened to retaliate for filing grievances. Dimanche's letter to the secretary met these requirements by "repeatedly" describing his fear, naming the high-ranking officers who threatened him, and describing what they did and threatened to do.

Though the prison appeared to argue that Dimanche should have appealed his grievance denial at the institutional level before filing a lawsuit, the court observed that "[t]he PLRA does not 'require[] an inmate to grieve a breakdown in the grievance process.'"

The Eleventh Circuit also reversed the dismissal for failure to state a claim. The district court summarily -- and bizarrely -- dismissed his action, even though taking his allegations as true (which a court must at this stage of the litigation), they amount to violations of the First, Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. It's hard to know why the district court did this, but nevertheless, the district court's "one-sentence conclusion" was "insufficient explanation," the Eleventh Circuit said.

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