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Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacates district court dismissal of Georgia inmate’s civil rights complaint for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, remands for development of fuller record regarding inmate’s claim that he was misled by prison officials

On September 10, 2020, in Geter v. Akunwanne, et al., No. 18,14824, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the judgment of the district court which had the dismissed the plaintiff’s 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights lawsuit. The plaintiff is an inmate at Baldwin State Prison in Georgia who claims that that medical staff at the prison failed to give him proper medical treatment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The district court dismissed the complaint after concluding that the plaintiff failed to exhaust his available administrative remedies, which is required under 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). While the parties agreed that the plaintiff had not properly invoked the administrative review grievance policy because the form he submitted did not comply with department policy, the issue before the Eleventh Circuit was whether the grievance process was “available” to the plaintiff as contemplated by § 1997e(a). The Eleventh Circuit noted that in Ross v. Blake, 136 S. Ct. 1850 (2016), the U.S. Supreme Court provided a framework for evaluating the “availability” of administrative remedies, and enumerated three circumstances in which administrative remedies were unavailable: (1) when the administrative procedure “operates as a simple dead end—with officers unable or consistently unwilling to provide any relief to aggrieved inmates”; (2) where the administrative scheme is “so opaque that it becomes… incapable of use… [and] no ordinary prisoner can discern or navigate it”; and (3) when “prison administrators thwart inmates from taking advantage of a grievance process through machination, misrepresentation, or intimidation.” Id. at 1859–60. The Eleventh Circuit concluded that because the plaintiff alleged and provided some evidence that he received misleading assistance in the prison grievance process, the case needed to be remanded so that the district could consider these allegations “with a more developed record” in light of the third prong of Ross.