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Battle v. Ledford

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

January 8, 2019

WILLIAM D. BATTLE, III, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
J. LEDFORD, Correctional Officer; R. EDWARDS, Correctional Officer; GREGORY HOLLOWAY, Warden of Wallens Ridge State Prison; GEORGE HINKLE, Regional Administrator for Virginia Department of Corrections, Defendants - Appellees.

          Argued: September 25, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia, at Roanoke. Elizabeth Kay Dillon, District Judge. (7:16-cv-00020-EKD-RSB)

         ARGUED:

          Sarah Crandall, Elizabeth Joynes, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA SCHOOL OF LAW, Charlottesville, Virginia, for Appellant.

          Michelle Shane Kallen, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF VIRGINIA, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellees.

         ON BRIEF:

          Joseph Charlet, Third Year Law Student, Megan Keenan, Third Year Law Student, Evan Ward, Third Year Law Student, Appellate Litigation Clinic, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA SCHOOL OF LAW, Charlottesville, Virginia, for Appellant.

          Mark R. Herring, Attorney General, Trevor S. Cox, Acting Solicitor General, Laura H. Cahill, Assistant Attorney General, Matthew R. McGuire, Deputy Solicitor General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF VIRGINIA, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellees.

          Before MOTZ, DUNCAN, and THACKER, Circuit Judges.

          DIANA GRIBBON MOTZ, CIRCUIT JUDGE

         The Prison Litigation Reform Act requires a prisoner to exhaust administrative remedies before filing suit. When a prisoner filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 after exhausting those remedies, the district court held the statute of limitations barred his suit. For the reasons that follow, we vacate and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I.

         William D. Battle, III, entered Wallens Ridge State Prison in Roanoke, Virginia, on December 6, 2013. After Battle completed the inmate intake process, corrections officers J. Ledford and R. Edwards (collectively, "the officers") escorted him to his assigned housing unit. A physical altercation between Battle and the officers occurred along the way.

         The officers subsequently filed a disciplinary report against Battle. They charged that Battle, who was restrained in handcuffs and leg irons during the transfer, used his body to push one of the officers into a food cart. According to the officers, they subdued Battle by "plac[ing]" him on the ground. Battle disputed this account before a prison hearing administrator. He denied shoving any officer and instead claimed that a pain in his ankle caused him to trip. He stated that the officers responded with unnecessary violence: pulling his hair and slamming his head into the concrete floor, causing "bruising, lacerations, [and] swelling of the face." Battle requested that the hearing administrator examine video footage of the incident to corroborate his account.

         The hearing administrator declined to do so; instead, he simply credited the officers' version of the incident. After unsuccessfully appealing this decision to the prison's chief warden, Battle submitted a second appeal to the regional corrections administrator. On February 27, 2014, the regional administrator rejected Battle's claim and issued a form confirming that Battle had reached the "last level of appeal for this grievance." A total of 83 days had passed since the altercation.

         On January 11, 2016 - two years and 36 days after the altercation - Battle completed a postage request for a pro se § 1983 complaint alleging the officers used excessive force against him, in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.[1]The parties accept that this postage request establishes the filing date.

         The officers moved for summary judgment, arguing that Battle filed outside Virginia's two-year statute of limitations applicable to § 1983 claims filed within the jurisdiction. See Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-243(A) (setting limitations for personal injury actions). Battle countered that his complaint was timely because 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a) of the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA") required him to exhaust available administrative remedies before bringing a § 1983 claim. He argued that the 83 days during which he participated in the required exhaustion should be tolled under two Virginia statutes and federal law, thus extending his filing deadline to February 27, 2016.[2]

         The first state statute on which Battle relied, Va. Code § 8.01-229(K), suspends the statute of limitations for personal injury actions during criminal proceedings. The second, Va. Code § 8.01-195.3(7), governs actions brought under the Virginia Tort Claims Act ("VTCA") and tolls the time for filing a claim notice during the pendency of a prison grievance process. Additionally, Battle relied on federal equitable tolling law.

         The district court considered only Battle's argument as to Va. Code § 8.01-229(K). It held that statute could not be used to toll Battle's limitations period because a "prison disciplinary proceeding is not a criminal prosecution." Battle v. Ledford, No. 7:16CV00020, 2017 WL 432822, at *3 n.5 (W.D. Va. Jan. 30, 2017) (citing Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 556 (1974)). The court then granted the officers' motion for summary judgment, concluding that Battle filed his complaint 36 days too late.

         On appeal, Battle concedes that the district court properly rejected his claim under Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-229(K). He maintains, however, that the court overlooked his claims of state statutory tolling under the VTCA and federal equitable tolling, and so erred in deeming his complaint time-barred.

         We review a district court's grant of summary judgment de novo. Henry v. Purnell, 652 F.3d 524, 531 (4th Cir. 2011) (en banc). Summary judgment is appropriate only when "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).

         II.

         Congress did not provide fixed timing rules in § 1983 or its companion provision, § 1988.[3] Instead, Congress specified that gaps in § 1983 "should be filled by state law, as long as that law is not inconsistent with federal law." Hardin v. Straub, 490 U.S. 536, 538 (1989).

         The Supreme Court has directed that we apply a state's "statute of limitations governing general personal injury actions" when considering § 1983 claims. Owens v. Okure, 488 U.S. 235, 251 (1989). A state's limitations and tolling rules are to be followed unless doing so "defeat[s] either § 1983's chief goals of compensation and deterrence or its subsidiary goals of uniformity and federalism." Hardin, 490 U.S. at 539 (footnote omitted). If Virginia law allows tolling of Battle's limitations period, that ends the inquiry. See id. at 543 (establishing that states may grant ...


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