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Frye v. Wilt

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

December 15, 2017

DEVON FRYE, Plaintiff,
v.
SGT. NATHANIEL WILT, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Martin C. Carlson United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. Introduction

         The Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997 (“PLRA”) requires that prisoners present their claims through an administrative grievance process prior to seeking redress in federal court. Specifically, the Act provides that: “No action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under [§ 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. § 1997e(a). In this prisoner civil rights case the parties present us with a legal question regarding the application of the PLRA's exhaustion requirement. On one hand, the plaintiff Devon Frye asks us to find that the exhaustion requirement does not apply to the claims asserted in his complaint because those claims regard sexual abuse, or alternatively to excuse his failure to exhaust prison grievances and find that the grievance process was unavailable to him. (Doc. 36.) On the other hand, the defendants ask that we dismiss this case based upon Frye's acknowledged failure to pursue prison grievances. (Doc. 28.)

         This legal dispute is further complicated by the fact that Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (“DOC”) policies seem to prescribe several paths for inmate grievances, describing one grievance procedure in DC-ADM 804, the DOC's general grievance procedure, while prescribing another process in a separate policy, DC-ADM 008, for allegations regarding sexual assault. Thus, we are presented with an administrative and regulatory grievance structure that appears to potentially provide for parallel sexual assault grievance procedures.

         Now pending before this court is a bifurcated motion for summary judgment filed by the defendants which highlights these legal issues and procedural ambiguities by seeking judgment in their favor based upon Frye's alleged failure to exhaust his administrative remedies at any time prior to bringing this action. (Doc. 26.) For the reasons set forth below and based on the circumstances surrounding Frye's case, we find that the defendants have not met their burden of showing that Frye's claims are subject to dismissal on the grounds of nonexhaustion and therefore the defendants' motion for summary judgment will be denied.

         II. Background and Statement of the Case

         Plaintiff Devon Frye suffered a vicious sexual assault at the hands of cellmate Brian White in the early morning hours of July 23, 2014, while he was in the custody of the DOC at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview (“SCI-Rockview”), in Centre County, Pennsylvania. (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 2, 21.) Frye alleges that White was a convicted rapist who previously had been disciplined by prison staff for assaulting a cellmate. (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 9, 20.) White first requested to be celled with Frye on July 16, 2014, but that request was initially denied by defendant Pasquale, the Unit Manager at SCI-Rockview. (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 8-10.) Two days later, White submitted another request to be celled with Frye, unbeknownst to Frye himself, which was approved by defendant Sergeant Nathaniel Wilt. (Doc. 1, ¶ 11.) Frye alleges that Wilt failed to inform and consult Pasquale about this second request, in violation of prison policy. (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 12-13.) Shortly after being placed in White's cell, Frye asked Wilt for a new cell assignment on the grounds that White was becoming aggressive towards him and that he was not made aware of White's second cell assignment request. (Doc. 1, ¶ 15.) Wilt denied Frye's request on the basis of a prison policy that purportedly prohibited inmates from receiving new cell assignments twice within a 90 day period. (Doc. 1, ¶ 16.) On the second day that White and Frye were celled together, White was increasingly aggressive towards Frye, both by becoming physically confrontational and making sexual advances. (Doc. 1, ¶ 17.) In response to these actions by White, Frye again requested to be reassigned to a new cell, which was again denied by Wilt. (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 18-19.)

         Less than a week after being placed in White's cell, Frye was violently attacked and sexually assaulted by White. The attack on the morning of July 23, 2014 began with White punching and choking Frye, and continued with White covering Frye's mouth, throwing him down on the bed, pulling off his clothing, and raping him. (Doc. 1, ¶ 21.) Frye alleges that he yelled for help throughout the incident, but no prison staff responded until over an hour later. (Doc. 1, ¶ 22.) In April of 2015, White pleaded guilty to raping Frye and was sentenced to a term of 4-8 years in prison. (Doc. 1, ¶ 23.)

         Frye commenced this action on May 9, 2016, asserting claims against DOC officials Superintendent Steven Glunt, Sergeant Wilt, Unit Manager Pasquale, and a John Doe Corrections Officer for their alleged deliberate indifference to Frye's safety in violation of the Eighth Amendment. (Doc. 1.) Specifically, Frye asserts that he was incarcerated under conditions that posed a substantial risk of serious harm to him as a feminine-appearing, openly-homosexual male when he was forced to cell with a known rapist and violent prisoner. (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 31-33.) Frye also brings a common law tort claim for reckless disregard of safety against all defendants. (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 40-43.)

         The defendants filed a partial motion to dismiss Frye's initial complaint on June 20, 2016 (Doc. 7), which was granted on November 22, 2016. (Doc. 15.) Frye filed the instant amended complaint on October 27, 2016 (Doc. 13), which the defendants answered on December 1, 2016. (Doc. 17.) Among the affirmative defenses listed in the answer, the defendants claimed that Frye was “prohibited and barred from proceeding on his claims due to his failure to exhaust his administrative remedies.” (Doc. 17, at 8.)

         On June 2, 2017, the defendants filed a motion for leave to file bifurcated motions for summary judgment, seeking to separately contest administrative exhaustion and Frye's claims on the merits. (Doc. 24.) Along with the motion for bifurcation, the defendants filed the first of their bifurcated motions for summary judgment, which is now pending before this court, within which the defendants argue that they are entitled to judgment in their favor because Frye failed to exhaust administrative remedies prior to filing the instant claim. (Doc. 33.) This court granted the motion for bifurcation on June 8, 2017 (Doc. 33), and the issue of administrative exhaustion has been fully briefed. Accordingly, this first motion for summary judgment is now ripe for disposition.

         III. Discussion

         A. Administrative Exhaustion Under the PLRA

         The Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997 (“PLRA”) requires prisoners to present their claims through an administrative grievance process prior to seeking redress in federal court. Specifically, the Act provides that: “No action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under [§ 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. § 1997e(a). In accordance with the PLRA, prisoners must comply with exhaustion requirements with respect to any claim that arises in the prison setting, regardless of the relief sought. See Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 532 (2002) (“[T]he PLRA's exhaustion requirement applies to all inmate suits about prison life, whether they involve general circumstances or particular episodes, and ...


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