The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Lisa Pupo Lenihan
This prisoner civil rights case has a long and tortured history. Troy Ponton, represented by Angus R. Love, initially filed this case in the United State Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Ponton v. Bailey, No. 2:02-cv-482-RBS (filed 1/30/2002). Upon stipulation of the parties, the case was transferred to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Id. (Doc. No. 3); Ponton v. Bailey, No. 1:02-cv-518 (M.D. Pa. Filed 3/28/02). On April 29, 2002, Plaintiff's counsel stipulated that this case should be transferred to this court. Ponton v. Bailey, No. 1:02-cv-518 (M.D. Pa. Doc. 2), which received the case on May 9, 2002.
On April 15, 2003, Defendants filed an answer to the civil rights complaint. Doc. 10. After several extensions of the period for discovery, an order was entered directing counsel to file pretrial statements. Doc. 19. Both parties did this in November and December 2005. Docs. 20, 22. Defendants also filed a motion to amend their answer so as to specifically include the affirmative defense of failure to exhaust. Doc. 23. That motion was ultimately granted. Doc. 42. Meanwhile, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, Doc. 24, and a brief in support. Doc. 26. In that motion, they raised the failure to exhaust as a defense. Plaintiff filed a brief in opposition, Doc. 29, and evidentiary materials in opposition. Doc. Nos. 30 - 33. Defendants Bailey filed a statement of facts not in dispute. Doc. 37.
The Magistrate Judge previously assigned to this case authored a Report recommending denial of the summary judgment motion, finding that there was a material factual dispute as to whether Plaintiff had filed a March 7, 2000 grievance with the proper first level grievance officer or whether such grievance was fabricated after the fact, when Plaintiff received a response from Chief Grievance Officer Bitner dated April 17, 2000, advising that Plaintiff could not skip the first two levels of grievance review and immediately file a grievance with Bitner. Doc. 42 at 5-7. The Report further recommended that
[t]he determination whether a prison has exhausted administrative remedies is made by evaluating the adequacy of an inmate's attempts to comply with the prison's administrative regulations governing inmate grievances. It is not a trial issue, rather it is a preliminary question of law to be determined by the court. . . . The question whether plaintiff properly exhausted his administrative remedies should be heard by the trial court before the jury trial on the claim of deliberate indifference.
Doc. 42 at 6-7. No objections were filed to the report and it was adopted as the opinion of the court. Doc. 44. On September 19, 2006, an order was entered granting the consent motion of the parties to have this case transferred to the undersigned for all further proceedings. A telephone conference was held on October 17, 2006, wherein the parties agreed to have a bench trial conducted on the issue of exhaustion. Doc. 47. The hearing was conducted on November 9, 2006. At the beginning of the hearing, the court again asked the parties to state their agreement that the court could decide the issue of exhaustion as a preliminary matter, and not as a question of fact for the jury to decide. The parties agreed to this.
1. At the time of initiating this lawsuit, Plaintiff was incarcerated at SCI-Mercer. Complaint at ¶ 3.
2. At the time of the events giving rise to this suit, Plaintiff was incarcerated at SCI-Houtzdale. Complaint at ¶¶ 9-31.
3. On March 8, 2000, Plaintiff was transferred to SCI-Chester.
4. At some time during the pendency of these proceedings but prior to the hearing, Plaintiff finished his sentence and was released from state custody.
5. Adequate exhaustion of administrative remedies is required prior to filing any lawsuit alleging a civil rights violation by an incarcerated person, pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a).
6. Exhaustion of administrative remedies, within the meaning of the PLRA, is governed in the DOC by Administrative Directive DC-ADM 804.
7. The DC-ADM 804 policy is contained in the DOC Inmate Handbook that is distributed to all inmates, including ...