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Jackson v. Coyne

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville Division

February 28, 2018




         This matter is before the Court on Defendants James Coyne and Heather Horn's motion for summary judgment, [DN 17.] Plaintiff Mark Johnson responded, [DN 24], and Defendants replied, [DN 25.] The Court ordered the parties to file supplemental briefing, [DN 28], which they did, [DN 30; DN 32.] For the reasons discussed in detail below, the Court will deny Defendants' motion for summary judgment.


         Summary judgment is appropriate when the record, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, reveals “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 genuine dispute of material fact exists where “there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). The Court “may not make credibility determinations nor weigh the evidence when determining whether an issue of fact remains for trial.” Laster v. City of Kalamazoo, 746 F.3d 714, 726 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Logan v. Denny's, Inc., 259 F.3d 558, 566 (6th Cir. 2001); Ahlers v. Schebil, 188 F.3d 365, 369 (6th Cir. 1999)). “The ultimate question is ‘whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.' ” Back v. Nestlé USA, Inc., 694 F.3d 571, 575 (6th Cir. 2012) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251-52).

         The moving party must shoulder the burden of showing the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact as to at least one essential element of the nonmovant's claim or defense. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); see also Laster, 746 F.3d at 726 (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324). Assuming the moving party satisfies its burden of production, the nonmovant “must-by deposition, answers to interrogatories, affidavits, and admissions on file-show specific facts that reveal a genuine issue for trial.” Laster, 746 F.3d at 726 (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324). “[N]ot every issue of fact or conflicting inference presents a genuine issue of material fact.” Street v. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1477 (6th Cir. 1989). The test is “whether the party bearing the burden of proof has presented a jury question as to each element in the case.” Hartsel v. Keys, 87 F.3d 795, 799 (6th Cir. 1996). Nor will mere speculation suffice to defeat a motion for summary judgment: “[t]he mere existence of a colorable factual dispute will not defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment. A genuine dispute between the parties on an issue of material fact must exist to render summary judgment inappropriate.” Monette v. Elec. Data Sys. Corp., 90 F.3d 1173, 1177 (6th Cir. 1996).


         Plaintiff Mark Jackson, a pro se prisoner, brought the instant lawsuit alleging that Defendants, who are employed at the Kentucky State Reformatory (“KSR”), violated his rights by improperly denying him access to the courts and legal mail services and by reading his legal mail, including court documents, outside of his presence. [DN 1.] Defendants filed the instant motion for summary judgment moving for dismissal of Jackson's claims on the sole ground that Jackson failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. [DN 17 at 2-3.]

         The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 requires a prisoner to exhaust all available administrative remedies before filing any action “with respect to prison conditions” under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 or any other federal law. 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). That exhaustion requirement “applies to all inmate suits about 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); accord Freeman v. Francis, 196 F.3d 641, 644 (6th Cir. 1999). Exhaustion is mandatory and the remedies provided “need not meet federal standards, nor must they be ‘plain, speedy, or effective.' ” Porter, 534 U.S. at 524, 122 S.Ct. 983 (quoting Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731, 739 (2001)). “Proper exhaustion demands compliance with [the prison's] deadlines and other critical procedural rules.” Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 90 (2006). Failure to exhaust administrative remedies is an affirmative defense, which the defendant has the burden to plead and prove by a preponderance of the evidence. Lee v. Willey, 789 F.3d 673, 677 (6th Cir. 2015) (citing Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 216 (2007)).

         In their motion for summary judgment, Defendants contend that Jackson failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, which, pursuant to the Kentucky Corrections Policies and Procedures for Inmate Grievance Procedure (“CPPs”), begins with the filing of an inmate grievance form and ends with an appeal to the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections. [See DN 17-2.] Defendants argue that, because there was never an “appeal of a grievance to the Commissioner, Plaintiff did not properly exhaust his administrative remedies.” [DN 17-1 at 3.]

         Jackson does not dispute that he never saw the grievance process all the way through to an appeal to the Commissioner. Jackson argues, however, that he did fill out a grievance form on January 26, 2017, but that he withdrew the grievance when he was threatened by an inmate grievance aide, Howard Hawkins, who “stated he would cause harm to plaintiff if he didn't sign grievance and dismiss.” [DN 24 at 1.] Indeed, Defendants attached this grievance form as an exhibit to their motion for summary judgment. [DN 17-4.] The form, titled “Grievance Information Form, ” was filled out and signed by Jackson on January 26, 2017 in black ink. [Id.] Therein, Jackson recites his complaints about Defendants' alleged unauthorized viewing of his legal mail. [Id.] Below the lines for the grievant's signature and date are lines to be filled in with the “Grievance Aide's Signature” and “Date Received.” [Id.] Howard Hawkins signed on the signature line and wrote January 27, 2017 as the date received in bright blue ink. [Id.] Below, in the same bright blue ink, is an unintelligible signature and the words “withdrawn 1-27-18.” [Id.] Below reads “closed - resolved prior to filing.” [Id.]

         According to Jackson, he “was unable to use the grievance procedure or appeal due to threats and his life [being] in danger.” [DN 24 at 2.] Jackson made this same argument in his Complaint, in which he stated that he “filed a grievance and was forced to withdraw it due to threats.” [DN 1 at 5.] Jackson claims that, after he withdrew his grievance, he attempted to contact the Ombudsman's office for the Kentucky Department of Corrections, but that he never received a response. [DN 24 at 2.] Jackson contends that his “understanding [was that] the Ombudsman office is for continuing resolution of issues, problems or complaints of state prisoners regard[ing] living conditions and treatment” and that the “Ombudsman investigates complaint[s] where inmate has failed to get satisfactory results through available institution channels.” [Id.]

         In their reply, Defendants state that, even if Jackson was threatened by Hawkins, a grievance aide is simply a fellow inmate, not Corrections staff. [DN 25 at 2.] According to Defendants, “[a] threat from a fellow inmate does not excuse the requirement that Plaintiff exhaust his administrative remedies.” [Id.] Additionally, Defendants argue that Jackson provided insufficient evidence that Hawkins actually threatened him or that the alleged threat was related to Jackson's grievance. [Id.]

         The Supreme Court of the United States recently identified certain circumstances under which the exhaustion requirement of “§ 1997e(a) poses no bar” to a prisoner's lawsuit. Ross v. Blake, 136 S.Ct. 1850, 1860 (2016). Among these circumstances is when the administrative procedure becomes effectively “unavailable” to prisoners because “prison administrators thwart[ed] inmates from taking advantage of a grievance process through machination, misrepresentation, or intimidation.” Id.

         In a Memorandum Opinion and Order dated January 16, 2018, the Court noted that Defendants essentially argue that an inmate working as a grievance aide does not equate to a “prison administrator” who could thwart Jackson's attempt to file a grievance. See Ross, 136 S.Ct. at 160. After finding that it had insufficient information to make that determination at that time, however, the Court requested supplemental briefing from Defendants “explaining the position of ‘grievance aide' at KSR and the extent to which grievance aides may act as agents of KSR.” [DN 28 at 3.] Defendants submitted a supplemental brief, [DN 30], and Jackson filed a response, [DN 32.] Having reviewed the parties' briefs and the applicable case law, the Court finds that Defendants have not carried their burden of ...

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