The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Carlson
I. Statement of Facts and of the Case
This is a civil rights action brought by Kent Powe, a state inmate housed at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Smithfield. In his complaint, Powe alleges that the Defendants failed to honor his "Supreme Court hair exemption" in November of 2009, when correctional staff allegedly disciplined Powe for failing to cut his hair. (Doc. 3.) Powe seeks damages, expungement of his prison disciplinary record, and release from the prison restricted housing unit as remedies for these alleged constitutional infractions. (Id.)
The Defendants have now filed a motion for summary judgment, which raises as a threshold matter the defense that Powe has failed to exhaust his administrative remedies with respect to this November, 2009, incident. Since exhaustion of these administrative remedies is an absolute prerequisite to filing a lawsuit in federal court, the Defendants insist that Powe's failure to exhaust these remedies now bars him from pursuing this litigation.
With respect to this threshold legal issue the undisputed facts can be simply stated: At the time of the episodes which form this basis of this lawsuit, inmates like Kent Powe had clear and well-established administrative grievance procedures available to them to challenge prison official actions like disciplinary decisions. At the time of this incident these administrative remedies for inmate grievances were provided for in Department of Corrections Administrative Directive 804 ("DC-ADM 804"). The Department of Corrections' grievance system entailed a three-step process. Pursuant to DC-ADM 804, the first step in the inmate grievance process is an initial review. An inmate must submit a grievance within 15 working days of the event on which the grievance is based. (DC-ADM 804 (VI)(A)(8).) An inmate who was dissatisfied with the initial review decision is permitted to appeal to the Facility Manager within 10 working days of the date of the initial review decision. (DC-ADM 804(VI)(C)(1)(b).) At a state correctional institution, the Facility Manager was the institution's Superintendent. (DC-ADM 804(IV)(G).) An appeal to final review could be sought through the Secretary's Office of Inmate Grievances and Appeals ("SOIGA") by filing an appeal to that office within 15 working days of the date of the Facility Manager's decision. (DC-ADM 804 (VI)(D)(1)(b).) Extensions to these deadlines could be granted at the discretion of the agency if the inmate submitted a written explanation for a failure to timely file the grievance or an appeal. (DC-ADM 804 (VI)(B)(3), (VI)(C)(2)(a), (VI)(D)(1)(c). (Doc. 30, Sears decl. at ¶2.) All inmates are provided with a copy of the grievance system in their inmate handbooks. (Doc. 30, Sears Decl. at ¶ 2.)
In this case the prison actions which Powe now protests arose out of a November 5, 2009, dispute between Powe and staff at SCI Smithfield. As a result of this incident, on November 5, 2009, a misconduct report was issued to Powe charging him with refusing to obey an order. ( Doc. 30, Hollibaugh Decl. at ¶ 7 and Attach. 3.)
Four days later, on November 9, 2009,a disciplinary hearing was held concerning this misconduct report. At this hearing, Powe was found guilty of the charge of refusing to obey an order, and was sanctioned to 45 days of disciplinary custody. (Doc. 30, Hollibaugh Decl. at ¶ 8 and Attach. 3.) Powe did not appeal this decision. (Hollibaugh Decl. at ¶ 9.)
While Powe did not grieve the discipline imposed upon him, he did make halting and incomplete efforts to challenge these actions in another way. Specifically, on December 1, 2009, Powe filed a prison grievance claiming he was threatened by Officer Shovlin and Unit Manager Campopiano to cut his hair. (Doc. 30, Hollibaugh Decl. at ¶ 3 and Attach. 1.) That grievance was considered, and denied, at the initial step in the Department of Corrections multi-tier grievance process on December 10, 2009.(Doc. 30, Hollibaugh Decl. at ¶ 4 and Attach. 2.) Having had his initial grievance denied, Powe then did not complete the three-step grievance process. Specifically, Powe never took the final step prescribed by prison rules by filing an appeal of this decision to the Department of Corrections, Secretary's Office of Inmate Grievances and Appeals. (Doc. 30, Sears Decl. at ¶¶ 4-5; Hollibaugh Decl. at ¶ 5.)
In the declaration which Powe attached to his response in opposition to this summary judgment motion Powe concedes that he did not fully exhaust his administrative remedies with respect to this grievance. (Doc. 34.) Thus while Powe states that he filed an initial grievance with respect to this incident (id., ¶¶2 and 3), and appealed the denial of that grievance to the prison superintendent (id., ¶4), Powe does not dispute the Defendants' assertion that he never completed the final step in the administrative grievance process by filing an appeal of this decision to the Department of Corrections, Secretary's Office of Inmate Grievances and Appeals. (Doc. 30, Sears Decl. at ¶¶ 4-5; Hollibaugh Decl. at ¶ 5.)
The Defendants' motion for summary judgment on the threshold issue of exhaustion of administrative remedies has now been fully briefed by the parties, (Docs. 28-31, 33-35), and is, therefore, ripe for resolution. Because we find that Powe did not fully comply with the grievance process, has failed to totally exhaust his administrative remedies, and has failed to provide an adequate explanation for his noncompliance with these mandatory grievance procedures, the Defendants' summary judgment motion will be granted.
A. Summary Judgment-Standard of Review
The Defendants have moved for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides that "[t]he judgment sought should be rendered if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). Through summary adjudication a court is empowered to dispose of those claims that do not present a "genuine issue as to any material fact," Fed. R. Civ. P. 56, and for which a trial would be "an empty and unnecessary formality." Univac Dental Co. v. Dentsply Int'l, Inc., No. 07-0493, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31615, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 31, 2010). The substantive law identifies which facts are material, and "[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute about a material fact is genuine only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis that would allow a reasonable fact finder to return a verdict for the non-moving party. Id. at 248-49.
The moving party has the initial burden of identifying evidence that it believes shows an absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Conoshenti v. Pub. Serv. Elec. & Gas Co., 364 F.3d 135, 145-46 (3d Cir. 2004). Once the moving party has shown that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's claims, "the non-moving party must rebut the motion with facts in the record and cannot rest solely on assertions made in the pleadings, legal ...