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J.H. v. Management & Training Corp.

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Northern Division

October 26, 2017




         J.H. is incarcerated at East Mississippi Correctional Facility, a prison managed and operated by Management & Training Corporation. In August 2016, J.H. submitted a grievance to MTC which stated that, among other things, “On 8-1-16, I was raped by another inmate.” In October 2016, J.H. brought a Section 1983 claim and a negligence claim for damages against MTC for failing to prevent his rape.[1] MTC has moved for summary judgment, arguing that these claims have not been properly exhausted. For the reasons below, MTC's motion is DENIED.

         I. Discussion

         On this motion, MTC bears the burden of demonstrating that J.H. “failed to exhaust available administrative remedies, ” as exhaustion is an affirmative defense.[2] MTC argues that both J.H.'s federal law and state law claims were not properly exhausted pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act. But the PLRA's exhaustion requirement only applies to “[f]ederal law” claims - not state law claims.[3] MTC has pointed only to the PLRA as the reason for dismissing J.H.'s negligence claim. As such, the Court will deny the motion's request to dismiss that claim.[4]The PLRA's exhaustion requirement does, however, apply to J.H's Section 1983 claim. Under Johnson v. Johnson, J.H. has satisfied that requirement if his Section 1983 claim has a “basis” in the “problem[s]” MTC was given “fair notice” of through his grievance.[5] On this motion, MTC must show there is no “genuine dispute” of any “material fact” as to whether the problems raised in J.H.'s grievance are the basis for his Section 1983 claim.[6]

         A. What Problems Was MTC Notified of by J.H.'s Grievance?

         J.H.'s grievance reads as follows:

Date of Incident: 8-2-16. Time of Incident: 8:30 a.m. Place of Incident: Unit 3-C zone door. Alleged Complaint: Conflict with staff. On 8-1-16, I was raped by another inmate. I went to the door after shift change and told Officer Ford (who works Unit 3) that I needed to go to the clinic for a breathing treatment. I told her to please call them. Then I told her that I had been raped. She laughed at me and said did he rape you in your booty, like it was a joke. I told her I was serious. She never called medical. When they let me go to the library, I went to medical and reported the rape to Nurse Edwards. Relief Requested: Officer Ford should take things more serious when it comes to offenders safety and well being. Whatever punishment that seems proper for her actions.[7]

         MTC argues that J.H.'s grievance only notified them of a single problem: that Officer Ford - not MTC itself - “fail[ed] to take [J.H.] to the medical department immediately after he reported the alleged rape.”[8] It is true that this is the only problem the grievance describes in great detail. And it is true that this problem is not the basis for J.H.'s complaint, which only alleges harms stemming from his rape, not MTC's failure to properly respond to that rape. But it is also true that the grievance includes the phrase, “On 8-1-16, I was raped by another inmate.” The question is whether this undetailed allegation gave MTC fair notice of a problem.

         The answer lies, in part, within MTC's rules regarding grievance procedures.[9] Those rules do not state that a grievance can only address one problem, or only the problem at the heart of the grievance. Nor did those rules state that a grievance must frame problems using the “specific legal theory” relied on in a future lawsuit.[10] Instead, MTC's rules simply state that a grievance must be as detailed “as possible” when describing a problem.[11]

         Under Johnson, the proper amount of detail is that which “gives officials a fair opportunity to address the problem.”[12] The requisite level of detail, then, “depend[s] on the type of problem” at issue.[13] To allow officials to address a problem regarding a specific inmate or officer, a grievance must include “details regarding who was involved and when the incident occurred.”[14] But when a problem regards conditions created by prison policy, officials can address it “whether or not the grievance names anyone.”[15] For example, a grievance can merely state that “prices in the commissary are too high” in order for officials to address the relevant policy problem.[16] In short, Johnson says that a relatively undetailed statement in a grievance can give fair notice of a problem with a prison condition or policy.

         Here, it is unclear if the phrase “On 8-1-16, I was raped by another inmate” suggests a problem with a prison condition or policy, rather than a problem with an individual. On one interpretation of that phrase, J.H. was suggesting a problem with the particular inmate who allegedly raped him. On this view, J.H. failed to give MTC a fair opportunity to address the problem because his grievance did not name his rapist. Under another interpretation of that phrase, however, J.H was suggesting a problem with prison condition or policy - namely, the inadequacy of procedures aimed at preventing the rape of inmates.

         The record indicates that MTC adopted this latter interpretation. In an August 2016 memo, MTC told J.H. that it was investigating his grievance to see if it stated a violation of the rules created by the Mississippi Department of Corrections pursuant to the Prison Rape Elimination Act.[17] Those rules, according to MDOC, are aimed at “preventing, detecting and responding to sexual abuse and sexual misconducts in the correctional setting.”[18] In a December 2016 memo, MTC told J.H. that the resulting investigation found his grievance's allegations “[u]nsubstantiated.”[19] That memo framed the alleged PREA rule violation as one claiming “that [J.H. was] sexually assaulted by [his] roommate” - not that Officer Ford had failed to properly respond to that rape.

         These statements do not definitively prove that MTC interpreted J.H.'s grievance as presenting a problem with MTC ability to prevent inmate rape. But those statements do establish that the “evidence is such that a reasonable jury could [decide the issue] for the nonmoving party, ” J.H.[20] The record therefore creates a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether J.H.'s grievance notified MTC that its policies did not protect inmates from rape.

         B. Was The Relevant Problem The Basis For This ...

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