The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Maureen P. Kelly
[ECF Nos. 112, 114 and 141]
Plaintiff Clay Caldwell ("Caldwell" or "Plaintiff") and all Department of Corrections Defendants have filed Motions for Summary Judgment.*fn1 For the following reasons, the Defendants‟ Motion for Summary Judgment is granted in part and denied in part. Plaintiff‟s Motion for Summary Judgment is denied. In addition, Plaintiff‟s separately filed Motion for Default Judgment [ECF No. 141] is denied.
I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff initiated this pro se civil rights action against seven corrections officers from SCI-Greene, the prison superintendent, and the Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections ("Defendants"). He alleges, inter alia, that his constitutional rights were violated when he was touched in a sexual manner during pat-down searches and because he was required to obtain a permit to keep his Native American religious items in his cell.
After dismissal of Plaintiff‟s Complaint for failure to exhaust the prison grievance procedure and for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, Caldwell filed a timely appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which appointed pro bono counsel. On appeal, Caldwell contended that the District Court improperly dismissed his Eighth Amendment claim based upon the Court‟s sua sponte finding of lack of exhaustion and further erred in failing to address his Equal Protection claim relating to religious discrimination.*fn2
The Court of Appeals concluded that because the affirmative defense of failure to exhaust was not apparent from the face of Caldwell‟s complaint, the Court erred by sua sponte dismissing Plaintiff‟s Eighth Amendment claim. With regard to Plaintiff‟s Equal Protection Claim arising out of alleged religious discrimination, the Court of Appeals concluded that the Court erred by failing to address the claim. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals remanded this action for further proceedings with regard to the two issues before it.
Defendants filed their Answer to Plaintiff‟s Complaint, raising the affirmative defense of failure to exhaust administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e (a), and filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on this basis as to both of Plaintiff‟s claims. Defendant‟s Motion for Summary Judgment also challenges the merits of Plaintiff‟s Equal Protection claim with regard to the requirement that he have a permit to possess certain religious items in his special housing unit cell. Plaintiff has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, contending that because Defendant‟s Answer was not filed until five months after the remand of this action, he is entitled to the entry of judgment in his favor.*fn3 In addition, Plaintiff contends he is entitled to the entry of judgment in his favor because the defense of failure to exhaust was not properly preserved by the Defendants and, in any event, he complied with the grievance procedure. Both parties have filed responses to the Motions, which are now ripe for consideration.
Defendants have moved for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Summary judgment is appropriate when "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). A factual dispute is "material" only if it might affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). For an issue to be "genuine," a reasonable fact-finder must be able to return a verdict in favor of the non-moving party. Id.
A party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the record that it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by citing relevant portions of the record, including depositions, documents, affidavits, or declarations, or showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or showing that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). Summary judgment is therefore appropriate when the non-moving party fails to rebut the moving party's argument that there is no genuine issue of fact by pointing to evidence that is "sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322; Harter v. GAF Corp., 967 F.2d 846, 852 (3d Cir.1992).
Under Rule 56, the Court must view the evidence presented on the motion in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. There must be enough evidence with respect to a particular issue to enable a reasonable jury to find in favor of the non-moving party. Id. at 248. A party asserting that a fact is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by citing to depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations, admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1).
A. Exhaustion of Eighth Amendment and Equal Protection Claims.
Defendants contend that they are entitled to the entry of judgment in their favor as a matter of law with regard to Plaintiff‟s Eighth Amendment and Equal Protection claims because Plaintiff did not comply with all requirements of the Pennsylvania Inmate Grievance System and thereby failed to exhaust all administrative remedies available to him. This affirmative defense, asserted by way of Defendant‟s Answer to the Complaint filed on March 2, 2011, raises questions concerning the application of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (the "PLRA"), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), where substantial but imperfect compliance with the Inmate Grievance System has occurred.
1. Plaintiff's Eighth Amendment Claim is not barred.
Plaintiff‟s alleged failure to timely pursue administrative remedies may have substantive significance for the Plaintiff since the Prison Litigation Reform Act provides that "[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under ... [42 U.S.C. § 1983], 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. § 1197e(a). The exhaustion requirement of Section 1997e applies to a wide-range of inmate complaints, including complaints like those made by Caldwell grounded in alleged violations of the Eighth Amendment. See Spruill v. Gillis, 372 F.3d 218 (3d Cir. 2004); Booth v. Churner, 206 F.3d 289 (3d Cir. 2000). While this exhaustion requirement is not a jurisdictional bar to litigation, the requirement is strictly enforced by the courts. This rigorous enforcement is mandated by a fundamental recognition that exhaustion requirement of § 1997e promotes important public policies. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has noted:
Courts have recognized myriad policy considerations in favor of exhaustion requirements. They include (1) avoiding premature interruption of the administrative process and giving the agency a chance to discover and correct its own errors; (2) conserving scarce judicial resources, since the complaining party may be successful in vindicating his rights in the administrative process and the courts may never have to intervene; and (3) improving the efficacy of the administrative process. Each of these policies, which Congress seems to have had in mind in enacting the PLRA, is advanced by the across-the-board, mandatory exhaustion requirement in § 1997e(a).... [A] comprehensive exhaustion requirement better serves the policy of granting an agency the "opportunity to correct its own mistakes with respect to the programs it administers before it is haled into federal court." Moreover, "even if the complaining prisoner seeks only money damages, the prisoner may be successful in having the [prison] halt the infringing practice" or fashion some other remedy, such as returning personal property, reforming personal property policies, firing an abusive prison guard, or creating a better screening process for hiring such guards. And when a prisoner obtains some measure of affirmative relief, he may elect not to pursue his claim for damages. In either case, local actors are given the chance to address local problems, and at the very least, the time frame for the prisoner's damages is frozen or the isolated acts of abuse are prevented from recurring. An across-the-board exhaustion requirement also promotes judicial efficiency.... Moreover, even if only a small percentage of cases settle, the federal courts are saved the time normally spent hearing such actions and multiple appeals thereto.... In cases in which inmate-plaintiffs exhaust their remedies in the administrative process and continue to pursue their claims in federal court, there is still much to be gained.
The administrative process can serve to create a record for subsequent proceedings, it can be used to help focus and clarify poorly pled or confusing claims, and it forces the prison to justify or explain its internal procedures. All of these functions help courts navigate the sea of prisoner litigation in a manner that affords a fair hearing to all claims.
Nyhuis v. Reno, 204 F.3d 65, 75--76 (3d Cir. 2000) (citations omitted). Because of the important policies fostered by this exhaustion requirement, it has been held that there is no futility exception to the exhaustion requirement. Id. Instead, courts have typically required across-the- board administrative exhaustion by inmate plaintiffs who seek to pursue claims in federal court.
Moreover, courts have also imposed a procedural default component on this exhaustion requirement, holding that inmates must fully satisfy the administrative requirements of the inmate grievance process before proceeding into federal court. Spruill v. Gillis, 372 F.3d 218 (3d Cir. 2004). Applying this procedural default standard to the Section 1997e exhaustion requirement, courts have concluded that inmates who fail to fully, or timely, complete the prison grievance process are barred from subsequently litigating claims in federal court. See, e.g., Booth v. Churner, 206 F.3d 289 (3d Cir. 2000); Bolla v. Strickland, 304 F. App'x 22 (3d Cir. 2008); Jetter v. Beard, 183 F. App'x 178 (3d Cir .2006). Applying this procedural default component, an inmate cannot excuse a failure to timely comply with these grievance procedures by simply claiming that his efforts constituted "substantial compliance" with the statutory exhaustion requirement. Harris v. Armstrong, 149 F.App'x 58, 59 (3d Cir. 2005). Nor can an inmate avoid this exhaustion requirement by merely alleging that the Department of Corrections policies were not clearly explained to him. Davis v. Warman, 49 F. App'x 365, 368 (3d Cir. 2002). Thus, an inmate's confusion regarding these grievances procedures does not, standing alone, excuse a failure to exhaust. Casey v. Smith, 71 F. App'x 916 (3d Cir. 2003). An inmate cannot cite to alleged staff impediments to grieving a matter as grounds for excusing a failure to exhaust, if it also appears that the prisoner did not pursue a proper grievance once those impediments were removed. Oliver v. Moore, 145 F. App'x 731 (3d Cir. 2005) (failure to exhaust not excused if, after staff allegedly ceased efforts to impede grievance, prisoner failed to follow through on grievance).
This broad rule, however, admits of one exception, an exception with potential application here. If the actions of prison officials in some fashion contributed to inmate's procedural default on a grievance, the inmate will not be held to strict compliance with this exhaustion requirement. See Camp v. Brennan, 219 F.3d 279 (3d Cir. 2000). However, courts have recognized a clear "reluctance to invoke equitable reasons to excuse [an inmate's] failure to exhaust as the statute requires." Davis v. Warman, 49 F.App'x 365, 368 (3d Cir. 2002). Thus, an inmate's failure to exhaust will only be excused "under certain limited circumstances," and an inmate can defeat a claim of failure to exhaust only by showing "he was misled or that there was some extraordinary reason he was prevented from complying with the statutory mandate." Harris v. Armstrong, 149 F. App'x 58, 59 (3d Cir. 2005); Davis v. Warman, supra, 49 F. App'x at 368. The grievance procedures in effect at SCI--Greene during the relevant time are set forth in
Policy DC--ADM 804. [ECF No. 116-1, pp. 5-22]. The policy outlines a three-tier grievance procedure. First, within 15 days of the events alleged in the grievance, the inmate is required to fill out an initial grievance on a DC-804, Part 1 -- Grievance Form. The grievance form must include "a statement of the facts relevant to the claim" and the form must be filed with the Facility Grievance Coordinator (Step 1). If the inmate is dissatisfied with the initial review decision, he or she may appeal to the Facility Manager, usually the Superintendent of the inmate's respective Institution (Step 2). The policy ...