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Bucano v. Austin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

October 13, 2017

Melissa Bucano, Plaintiff,
Keith Austin, et al., Defendants



         Plaintiff Melissa Bucano, a former prisoner at the State Correctional Institution at Cambridge Springs (“SCI Cambridge Springs”) brings the present 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against Defendants in their personal capacity. Am. Compl., Doc. 13. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Keith Austin, a correctional officer formerly employed at SCI Cambridge Springs, violated Plaintiff's Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by sexually harassing and abusing her (Count I); and that Austin intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon her (Count VI). Plaintiff further alleges that other employees of SCI Cambridge Springs (“the Cambridge Springs Defendants”)[1] violated her Eighth Amendment right by acting with deliberate indifference to her safety and medical needs both before and after the abusive events at issue (Counts II-V). Austin and the Cambridge Springs Defendants moved for summary judgment, respectively, arguing, in relevant part, that Plaintiff failed to exhaust her administrative remedies.

         Before the Court is the Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) [85] of the Honorable Susan Paradise Baxter, United States Magistrate Judge, recommending that the Court deny the motion for summary judgment filed by Austin [57] and grant the motion for summary judgment filed by the Cambridge Springs Defendants [61]. Specifically, the R&R found that Plaintiff did not fail to exhaust her administrative remedies as to her claims against Defendant Austin, but that Plaintiff did fail to exhaust her administrative remedies as to her claims against the Cambridge Springs Defendants. Doc. 85. Plaintiff and Austin each filed objections [Pl's. Objs., Doc. 88; Austin's Objs., Docs. 86, 87]; Plaintiff filed a response to Austin's objections [92]; and Austin filed a reply in support of his objections [95]. Additionally, the Cambridge Springs Defendants filed a response to Plaintiff's objections [96]; and Plaintiff filed a reply in support of her objections [99]. Having reviewed the Complaint, the briefs of the parties, the R&R, and the entirety of the record, the Court adopts in part the decision of the Magistrate Judge, and respectfully remands the matter for the Magistrate Judge's consideration of the merits of Plaintiff's claims against the Cambridge Springs Defendants, and whether these Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity.


         When a party files objections to an R&R, the district court must review the Magistrate's findings de novo. United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 673 (1980); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b). To obtain de novo review, a party must clearly and specifically identify those portions of the R&R to which it objects. Goney v. Clark, 749 F.2d 5, 6-7 (3d Cir. 1984). The district court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings and recommendations made by the Magistrate Judge. Raddatz, 447 U.S. at 673-74; see also 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         Summary judgment is proper “if the movant shows 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. Pro. 56(a). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). “[T]he substantive law will identify which facts are material. Only 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 . . . if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. In deciding a summary judgment motion, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all justifiable inferences in its favor. Weldon v. Kraft, Inc., 896 F.2d 793, 797 (3d Cir. 1990) (citing Sorba v. Pennsylvania Drilling Co., 821 F.2d 200, 204 (3d Cir.1987), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 1019 (1988)).


         The facts of this case are presented fully in the R&R and in the Court's previous orders. See Doc. 85; see also Doc. 26; Doc. 33. Accordingly, the Court addresses here only those facts and legal issues relevant to the parties' objections and responses thereto. Docs. 86-87, 88, 92, 95, 96, 99. The gravamen of the parties' objections and responses thereto concern whether Plaintiff exhausted the DOC's administrative remedies; and, if not, whether she should be excused from not having exhausted because those remedies were unavailable to her.

         The Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), requires that prisoners exhaust their available administrative remedies before filing any suit involving prison life, “whether they involve general circumstances or particular episodes, and whether they allege excessive force or some other wrong.” Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 532 (2002); see also Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 211 (2007) (“There is no question that exhaustion is mandatory under the PLRA and that unexhausted claims cannot be brought in court.”). Indeed, exhaustion is required “even where the relief sought-monetary damages-cannot be granted by the administrative process.” Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 85 (2006). In order to properly exhaust their claims, prisoners must comply with the administrative review process set forth by the relevant prison's grievance process, including properly availing themselves of “all administrative remedies.” Spruill v. Gillis, 372 F.3d 218, 231 (3d Cir. 2004). “The level of detail necessary in a grievance to comply with the grievance procedures will vary from system to system and claim to claim, but it is the prison's requirements, and not the PLRA, that define the boundaries of proper exhaustion.” Jones, 549 U.S. at 218; accord Spruill, 372 F.3d at 231 (“Mandatory exhaustion (with a procedural default component) ensures that inmate grievances will be addressed first within the prison's own system-in this respect, the PLRA is thus appropriately defederalizing”). Failure to exhaust is an affirmative defense; prisoner-plaintiffs are not required to plead or demonstrate exhaustion. Jones, 549 U.S. at 216.

         The following are Plaintiff's allegations, which, in the context of Austin's motion for summary judgment, the court must view in the light most favorable to Plaintiff. Weldon, 896 F.2d at 797. Plaintiff was initially incarcerated at SCI Muncy, but was transferred to SCI Cambridge Springs in September 2012. Moves Report, Doc. 63-2 at 4. Beginning in February 2013, Defendant Austin subjected Plaintiff to a series of inappropriate sexual comments and directives, and unwanted sexual contact.[2] Compl. ¶¶ 19-23; Pl's. Dep., Doc. 75-1 at 10. Austin's conduct persisted until June 4, 2013, when Plaintiff reported some of Austin's behavior to Defendant Sittig, Plaintiff's Unit Manager.[3] 6/4/13 Employee Report of Incident, Doc. 78-1 at 20.

         Following this meeting, Plaintiff was immediately placed in the Restricted Housing Unit (“RHU”), where inmates are housed in solitary confinement and kept in their cells for 23 hours per day. 6/4/13 Employee Report of Incident, Doc. 78-1 at 20; Pl's. Decl., Doc. 78-1 at 5. Plaintiff remained in the RHU during the pendency of the Office of Special Investigations and Intelligence (“OSII”) investigation into Austin. See Employee Reports, 6/4/13 DC-141, Doc. 78-1 at 23; 6/9/13 DC-141, Doc. 78-1 at 25; 7/3/13 DC-141, Doc. 78-1 at 27. Plaintiff spoke with an OSII investigator at some point in June 2013. Pl's. Dep., Doc. 75-1 at 19. After approximately six weeks in the RHU, Plaintiff was transferred to SCI Muncy on July 11, 2013. DOC Cell History, Doc. 78-2 at 17-18.

         By a three-sentence letter dated August 6, 2013, OSII informed Plaintiff that its investigation had been closed. Doc. 78-1 at 60. Specifically, OSII stated that Plaintiff's “allegations of abuse against staff at [SCI] Cambridge Springs have been thoroughly investigated. Abuse was not established; however, based on this investigation, further administrative action will be taken. The investigation is now closed and no further action will be taken by this office regarding this matter.” Id.[4] Plaintiff did not “appeal” or otherwise formally challenge OSII's letter.

         A. Plaintiff Exhausted Her Claims Against Austin

         Austin, in his objections, argues that in order to properly initiate the DOC's administrative process, inmates must file DC-804 Official Grievances within 15 days of the event(s) at issue, as set forth in the Department of Corrections Administrative Direct (“DC-ADM”) 804, “Inmate Grievance System.” See Objs., Doc. 87 at 8-11; see also Br. in Support of Summ. J., Doc. 58 at 8-9. Here, Plaintiff only reported Austin's conduct to Sittig; she did not file a corresponding DC-804 grievance. Thus, Austin argues, Plaintiff did not exhaust her administrative remedies. See Doc. 87 at 10; Doc. 58 at 3-9.

         DC-ADM 804 sets forth the DOC's “Inmate Grievance System.” DC-ADM 804 Policy Statement, Doc. 66-3 at 6 (“It is the policy of the Department that every individual committed to its custody shall have access to a formal procedure through which to seek resolution of problems or other issues of concern arising during the course of confinement.”). DC-ADM 804 provides for an initial review and two levels of appeal. At the initial stage, inmates must file a written DC-804 Official Grievance Form within 15 days of the event(s) giving rise to the grievance. Id. § I.A, Doc. 78-2 at 47.[5]

         However, “allegations of abuse shall be handled in accordance with Department Policy DC-ADM 001, ‘Inmate Abuse Allegation Monitoring Process' and/or DC-ADM 008, ‘Sexual Harassment of or Sexual Contact with Inmates.'” DC-ADM 804 § I.B.10.[6] Here, Plaintiff maintains that she exhausted her administrative remedies pursuant to DC-ADM 008. Pl's. Resp., Doc. 92 at 5-16.

         DC-ADM 008 states that an inmate who is “sexually harassed” by a prison employee “should report it to a staff member as soon as possible.” DC-ADM 008 § I.A.2, Doc. 64-7 at 10. Though the Directive instructs prison employees as to their duties following an inmate's report of sexual harassment, id. § I.A.5-6, it provides no further information as to how inmates should-or must-report sexual harassment. See generally id.; see also Id. § I.A.4 (“An inmate who reports sexual harassment, should provide details of the incident(s)[.]”).

         The 2009 Inmate Handbook (“Handbook”), however, which Plaintiff received upon her 2012 orientation of the DOC, Doc. 63-2 at 5, instructs inmates as follows:

If you believe you have experienced sexual harassment by staff…you must report it as soon as possible. You may report it to the Unit Manager and/ or submit a grievance in accordance with DC-ADM 804. If you file a report, you must include [certain demographic information]. The Unit Manager will ...

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