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Harris v. Elam

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

February 19, 2019

MARCUS ELAM, ET AL., Defendants.

          Alexander Harris, Pro Se Plaintiff;

          Margaret H. O'Shea, Office of the Attorney General, Richmond, Virginia, for Defendants.


          James P. Jones United States District Judge

         This prisoner civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is now before me on the defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment and the response thereto filed by the pro se plaintiff, Alexander Harris. After review of the parties' submissions and evidence, I conclude that the defendants' motion must be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Background.

         In my previous opinion in this case, Harris v. Elam, No. 7:17CV00147, 2018 WL 1410419, at *1-2 (W.D. Va. Mar. 21, 2018), I summarized Harris's allegations about the defendants' use of force in some detail and, thus, I offer only a brief overview here. Harris claims that on June 5, 2016, while he was confined at River North Correctional Center (“River North”), an officer confronted him about having threatened to harm prison dogs if they bit him. Later, although Harris says he was posing no threat, he was thrown to the ground, a K-9 was ordered to attack and bite him, and he was kicked in the face and head. Harris claims he was then dragged to another area of the prison, thrown on the ground, and punched and kicked.

         Harris also alleges that he tried to exhaust administrative remedies concerning the officers' assaults. He warned officials in his grievance documents that if the grievances were not filed, he would name grievance officials as defendants in a lawsuit. Because of this warning, Harris was found guilty of the prison offense of threatening defendant Sheets and penalized with fifteen days of disciplinary segregation and loss of all statutory good time (“SGT.”) Am. Compl. Attach. 2, ECF No. 23-2. Other defendants upheld these findings during Harris' disciplinary appeals.

         Harris then filed this § 1983 action. Remaining at issue are the following claims from his Amended Complaint: (1) on June 5, 2016, defendants Jackson, Meadows, Lowe, Williams, and Morgan used excessive force against Harris or failed to intervene; (2) defendant Sheets filed a disciplinary charge against Harris in retaliation for his exercise of his constitutional right to file grievances, to free speech, and to access the courts; and (3) defendants Blevins, MacVean, Dowell, Walrath, and Elam deprived Harris of due process during the disciplinary proceedings and furthered the retaliation that Sheets instigated. As relief, Harris seeks compensatory and punitive damages. On summary judgment, the defendants contend that the excessive force claim must be dismissed because Harris failed to exhaust administrative remedies properly before filing this action. They also argue that Harris's retaliation claim fails on the merits and that his due process claim is barred because success on its merits would invalidate his term of confinement.

         II. Discussion.

         A. The Summary Judgment Standard.

         A court should grant summary judgment “if the movant shows 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). “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). In short, a motion for summary judgment should be granted when the proof, taken in the form admissible at trial and resolving all factual doubts in favor of the non-moving party, would lead a reasonable juror to but one conclusion. Id. at 247-52. I must “view the facts and draw reasonable inferences in a light most favorable” to Harris, as the nonmoving party. Shaw v. Stroud, 13 F.3d 791, 798 (4th Cir. 1994).

         The defendants have filed supporting affidavits and documentation. Accordingly, to survive the defendants' motion, Harris must present sufficient evidence that could carry the burden of proof of his claims at trial. See Id. He “may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleading, but must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine [factual] issue for trial” on which the jury could find in his favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.[1] “Unsupported speculation is not sufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Baber v. Hosp. Corp. of Am., 977 F.2d 872, 875 (4th Cir. 1992).

         B. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies.

         The Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”) provides that a prisoner cannot bring a civil action concerning prison conditions until he has first exhausted available administrative remedies. 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). This exhaustion requirement is “mandatory, ” Ross v. Blake, 136 S.Ct. 1850, 1856 (2016), and “applies to all inmate suits about prison life.” Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 532 (2002). To comply with § 1997e(a), an inmate must follow each step of the established grievance procedure that the facility provides to prisoners and meet all deadlines within that procedure. See Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 90-94 (2006). Even if the particular form of relief the inmate seeks in his lawsuit is not available through the prison's grievance proceedings, he must, nevertheless, exhaust properly all available remedies under that procedure before bringing a civil action in this court. Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731, 741 (2001). The defendants bear the burden of proving the affirmative defense that Harris failed to exhaust available administrative remedies regarding his claims before filing suit. Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 216 (2007).

         The defendants argue that Harris did not exhaust available administrative remedies regarding his excessive force claims before filing this lawsuit. In support of this contention, they present an affidavit from River North Grievance Coordinator B. Walls.

         Operating Procedure (“OP”) 866.1 is the written administrative remedies procedure that Virginia Department of Corrections (“VDOC”) inmates must follow to comply with § 1997e(a). Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 1, Walls Aff. ¶ 4 and Enclosure A, ECF No. 33-1. Under this procedure, an inmate with a grievance about some event or issue must first make a good faith effort to resolve his concerns informally, which he may do by completing an Informal Complaint form and submitting it to prison's Grievance Department. His form will be forwarded to the appropriate department head for investigation. The inmate should receive a written response ...

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