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Gruff v. Beard

IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA


April 11, 2008

JOHN A. GRUFF, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JEFFERY A. BEARD, SECRETARY OF PA. DEPT. OF CORRECTIONS; JOSEPH TREMPUS; E. WILSON DEFENDANTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lisa Pupo Lenihan United States Magistrate Judge

Magistrate Judge Lisa Pupo Lenihan

MEMORANDUM ORDER

Plaintiff, John A. Gruff, is a state inmate currently confined at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. He commenced this action pursuant to the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against various officers and employees of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) raising claims of copyright infringement, illegal DNA testing, and confiscation of UCC documents. Defendant Beard has moved for dismissal of the Complaint on the basis of, inter alia, Plaintiff's failure to have complied with the DOC three-step grievance process available to Pennsylvania state prisoners. For the reasons that follow, Defendant Beard's Motion (doc. no. 65) will be granted and the Complaint dismissed under the PLRA.

A. Standards of Review

Defendant Beard has filed a Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 12(b)(6) (doc. no. 65). In deciding a motion to dismiss, the Court must read the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and all well-pleaded, material allegations in the complaint must be taken as true. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976). The court is bound to give the plaintiff the benefit of every reasonable inference to be drawn from the "well-pleaded" allegations of the complaint. Retail Clerks Intern. Ass'n, Local 1625, AFL-CIO v. Schermerhorn, 373 U.S. 746, 753 n. 6 (1963). A viable complaint must include "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, ___U.S. ___, 127 S.Ct. 1964-65. In other words, "factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id. at 1955. It is not proper for the court to assume that "the [plaintiff] can prove facts which [he or she] has not alleged, or that the defendants have violated the ... laws in ways that have not been alleged." Associated General Contractors of California, Inc. v. California State Council of Carpenters, 459 U.S. 519, 526 (1983). Finally, a court must employ less stringent standards when considering pro se pleadings than when judging the work product of an attorney. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972).

In addition, in the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), Pub. L. No. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321 (1996), Congress adopted major changes affecting civil rights actions brought by prisoners in an effort to curb the increasing number of frivolous and harassing law suits brought by persons in custody. The authority granted to federal courts for sua sponte screening and dismissal of prisoner claims in that Act is applicable to this case. Specifically, Congress enacted a new statutory provision at 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, entitled "Screening," which requires the court to review complaints filed by prisoners seeking redress from a governmental entity or an officer or employee of a governmental entity. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). If the complaint is "frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted," or "seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief," the court must dismiss the complaint. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b).

Also, Congress significantly amended Title 28 of the United States Code, section 1915, which establishes the criteria for allowing an action to proceed in forma pauperis ("IFP"), i.e., without prepayment of costs. Section 1915(e) (as amended) requires the federal courts to review complaints filed by persons that are proceeding in forma pauperis and to dismiss, at any time, any action that is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B).

Plaintiff is considered a "prisoner" as that term is defined under the PLRA*fn1 and he is seeking redress government officials. In addition, Plaintiff has been granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis. Thus his allegations must be reviewed in accordance with 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915A & 1915(e). In reviewing complaints under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915A & 1915(e), a federal court applies the same standard applied to motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).*fn2 Dismissal is proper under Rule 12(b)(6) if, as a matter of law, it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations. Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984).

B. Failure to Exhaust Administrative Remedies

Defendant Beard's first basis for dismissal of the Complaint is Plaintiff's alleged failure to have exhausted available administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), Pub. L. No. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321 (1996). In this regard, in the PLRA, Congress amended the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C.A. § 1997e, concerning suits by prisoners. Before the amendments, prisoners challenging the conditions of their confinement under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 were not required to exhaust administrative remedies before filing suit. The PLRA amended section 1997e(a), as follows, making exhaustion a mandatory requirement.

(a) Applicability of administrative remedies

No action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 of this title, 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), as amended.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit analyzed the applicability of the exhaustion requirement in 42 U.S.C. § 1997e in Nyhuis v. Reno, 204 F.3d 65 (3d Cir. 2000) (Bivens action brought by a federal inmate) and Booth v. Churner, 206 F.3d 289 (3d Cir. 2000) (civil rights action brought by a state prisoner). In each of these cases, the Court of Appeals announced a bright line rule that inmate-plaintiffs must exhaust all available administrative remedies before they can file an action in federal court concerning prison conditions. In so holding, the court specifically rejected the notion that there is ever a futility exception to section 1997e(a)'s mandatory exhaustion requirement. Booth, 206 F.3d at 300; Nyhuis, 204 F.3d at 66. A unanimous Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals' holding in Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731 (2001) where the Court confirmed that in the PLRA Congress mandated complete exhaustion of administrative remedies, regardless of the relief offered through those administrative procedures. In addition, in Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516 (2002), the Supreme Court clarified that the PLRA's exhaustion requirement applies to all inmate suits concerning prison life, whether they involve general circumstances or specific episodes and whether they allege excessive force or other conduct.

The administrative grievance procedure for Pennsylvania inmates is codified in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Policy Statement No. DC-ADM 804-1, entitled "Consolidated Inmate Grievance Review System." The purpose of the grievance system is to insure that every inmate confined in a Bureau of Correction facility has an avenue through which prompt resolution of any problem which arises during the course of confinement may be sought. DC-ADM 804 ¶ 1. The grievance system applies to all state correctional institutions and provides three levels of review: 1) initial review by the facility grievance coordinator; 2) appeal of initial review to the superintendent or regional director; and 3) final appeal to the Secretary's Office. DC-ADM 804 ¶ VI. The administrative policy further provides that, prior to utilizing the grievance system, prisoners are required to attempt to resolve problems on an informal basis through direct contact or by sending an inmate request slip to the appropriate staff member. DC-ADM 804 ¶ V.

In the instant action, Defendant asserts that the Complaint should be dismissed because Plaintiff failed to have exhausted his administrative remedies in that he failed to have filed any grievances concerning his claims. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has held that a prisoner's failure to comply with the procedural and substantive requirements of DOC's grievance policy, as set forth in DC ADM 804, results in procedural default, thereby precluding an action in federal court. See Spruill v. Gillis, 372 F.3d 218 (3d Cir. 2004). The United States Supreme Court adopted a similar holding in Woodford v. Ngo, ___ U.S. ___, 126 S.Ct. 2378 (June 22, 2006) wherein it held that an untimely or otherwise procedurally defective administrative grievance or appeal does not satisfy the PLRA's mandatory exhaustion requirement. Woodford, 126 S.Ct. at 2382.

Because exhaustion requirements are designed to deal with parties who do not want to exhaust, administrative law creates an incentive for these parties to do what they would otherwise prefer not to do, namely, to give the agency a fair and full opportunity to adjudicate their claims. Administrative law does this by requiring proper exhaustion of administrative remedies, which "means using all steps that the agency holds out, and doing so properly (so that the agency addresses the issues on the merits)." This Court has described the doctrine as follows: "[A]s a general rule AAA courts should not topple over administrative decisions unless the administrative body not only has erred, but has erred against objection made at the time appropriate under its practice." Proper exhaustion demands compliance with an agency's deadlines and other critical procedural rules because no adjudicative system can function effectively without imposing some orderly structure on the course of its proceedings.

Woodford, 126 S.Ct. at 2385-2386 (internal citations, quotations and footnotes omitted).

The Court further noted that "[c]onstruing § 1997e(a) to require proper exhaustion also fits with the general scheme of the PLRA, whereas respondent's interpretation would turn that provision into a largely useless appendage. "A prisoner who does not want to participate in the prison grievance system will have little incentive to comply with the system's procedural rules unless noncompliance carries a sanction" and "[t]he benefits of exhaustion can be realized only if the prison grievance system is given a fair opportunity to consider the grievance." Id. at 2387- 88. The PLRA attempts to eliminate unwarranted federal-court interference with the administration of prisons, and thus seeks to afford corrections officials time and opportunity to address complaints internally before allowing the initiation of a federal case." Woodard, 126 S.Ct. at 2387. The Court concluded that the benefits of exhaustion could only be realized if the prison grievance system is given a fair opportunity to consider the claims, which required the grievant to comply with the procedural rules. Woodford, 126 S.Ct. at 2388.

In the case at bar, Plaintiff procedurally defaulted his claim by failing to file any grievances concerning his claims. Plaintiff admits this in his Complaint (doc. no. 1) and in his Response to Defendant's Motion (doc. no. 69).

As stated by the Third Circuit, "it is beyond the power of this court--or any other--to excuse compliance with the exhaustion requirement, whether on the ground of futility, inadequacy or any other basis." Nyhuis, 204 F.3d at 73 (quotation omitted). The Supreme Court of the United States reiterated this tenet when it affirmed the Third Circuit's holding in Booth. Consequently, this Court is required to follow the Supreme Court's directive in Booth and dismiss Plaintiff's complaint due to his failure to have exhausted his available administrative procedures. Accord Quillar v. Brinkman, 63 Fed.Appx. 361, 362 (9th Cir. 2003) ("The district court correctly dismissed Quillar's action because it was clear from the face of the amended complaint that he had failed to exhaust available prison administrative remedies.").*fn3 An appropriate order follows.

AND NOW this 11th day of April, 2008 IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Defendant Beard's Motion to Dismiss (doc. no. 65) is GRANTED and the Complaint is DISMISSED under the PLRA against all Defendants. IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the Clerk of Court mark this case CLOSED.


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