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Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirms dismissal of Georgia inmate’s civil rights lawsuit against prison guards, finding a failure to exhaust administrative remedies

On August 31, 2021, in Varner v. Shepard, et al., No. 19-12048, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals considered a Title 42, § 1983 civil rights lawsuit in which the plaintiff, an inmate at a Georgia state prison, suffered serious injuries from a beating by prison guards. All three officers pled guilty to federal criminal charges related to the assault, but the inmate’s civil rights lawsuit was dismissed by the district court with prejudice on the grounds that he had failed to take timely action to exhaust his administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), 42 U.S.C. § 1997. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, finding that other than the requirement that administrative remedies be available, the statutory language of the PLRA and relevant case law make it clear that courts are not free to fashion exceptions to the exhaustion requirement, even when the circumstances of a particular case may seem to merit one. The Eleventh Circuit concluded that administrative remedies had been available in this case. Judge Pryor argued in dissent that the Georgia Department of Corrections’ (GDC) grievance procedure for the handling of inmate complaints of excessive force by officers is a “dead end” because such complaints are automatically forwarded to GDC’s Internal Investigations Unit, an action that automatically ends the grievance process.