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Vela v. Indiana Department of Corrections

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

January 24, 2017

ALFRED VELA, Plaintiff,
v.
INDIANA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, CORIZON HEALTH INC, and JOSEPH THOMPSON, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JAMES T. MOODY JUDGE

         Plaintiff Alfred Vela, a prisoner represented by counsel in this matter, sued Corizon Health Inc. and Joseph Thompson, [1] claiming that he received inadequate medical care while incarcerated which lead to paraplegia. (DE # 1.) Defendants have moved for summary judgment on plaintiff's claims, solely on the basis that plaintiff has failed to exhaust his available administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). (DE # 18.) Specifically, defendants point to plaintiff's failure to file a formal grievance with the prison before filing suit, a fact which is undisputed.

         As a preliminary matter, the Seventh Circuit has clearly stated a preference for separating exhaustion inquiries from summary judgment proceedings. Wagoner v. Lemmon, 778 F.3d 586, 592 (7th Cir. 2015). As the Wagoner court explained, summary judgment is designed to determine whether any issues of fact must be resolved by a jury, while the issue of exhaustion is not a question for the jury, but instead is a preliminary issue for the court. Id. Accordingly, though defendants styled their motion as one seeking “summary judgment, ” the court construes it as a motion for dismissal given plaintiff's failure to exhaust administrative remedies.[2]

         I. LEGAL STANDARD

         Exhaustion is an affirmative defense, and consequently the burden of proof is on defendants. Kaba v. Stepp, 458 F.3d 678, 681 (7th Cir. 2006). When there are no disputed facts regarding exhaustion, only a legal question, the court may resolve the issue without a hearing. Brown v. Korte, No. 15-CV-3288, 2016 WL 3556992, at *2 (C.D. Ill. June 24, 2016); Doss v. Gilkey, 649 F.Supp.2d 905, 912 (S.D. Ill. 2009). However, when factual disputes exist, district courts should hold a hearing to determine whether a plaintiff has exhausted his remedies. Pavey v.Conley, 544 F.3d 739, 742 (7th Cir. 2008).

         In Pavey the Seventh Circuit set forth the following sequence to be followed when the question of exhaustion requires a hearing:

(1) The district judge conducts a hearing on exhaustion and permits whatever discovery relating to exhaustion he deems appropriate.
(2) If the judge determines that the prisoner did not exhaust his administrative remedies, the judge will then determine whether (a) the plaintiff has failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, and so he must go back and exhaust; (b) or, although he has no unexhausted administrative remedies, the failure to exhaust was innocent (as where prison officials prevent a prisoner from exhausting his remedies), and so he must be given another chance to exhaust (provided that there exist remedies that he will be permitted by the prison authorities to exhaust, so that he's not just being given a runaround); or (c) the failure to exhaust was the prisoner's fault, in which event the case is over.
(3) If and when the judge determines that the prisoner has properly exhausted his administrative remedies, the case will proceed to pretrial discovery, and if necessary a trial, on the merits; and if there is a jury trial, the jury will make all necessary findings of fact without being bound by (or even informed of) any of the findings made by the district judge in determining that the prisoner had exhausted his administrative remedies.

Id. at 742.

         II. DISCUSSION

         In this case, there are several issues which the court can resolve based on undisputed facts as a matter of law, and one that warrants further exploration and a hearing, as explained below.

         (A) Effective Compliance Via Medical Requests

         First, plaintiff argues that he effectively complied with the prison's formal grievance procedure by submitting several requests for medical treatment on a separate type of form. However, these medical requests are not grievances within the meaning of § 1997e(a). The Seventh Circuit has held: “For a prisoner to exhaust his remedies within the meaning of § 1997e(a), he must ‘file complaints and appeals in the place, and at the time, the prison's administrative rules require.'” Burrell v. Powers,431 F.3d 282, 285 (7th Cir. 2005) (quoting Pozo v. McCaughtry,286 F.3d 1022, 1025 (7th Cir. 2002)). Neither the Supreme Court nor the Seventh Circuit has held that actions other than filing a formal grievance can constitute the functional equivalent of filing a grievance, and it is undisputed that the prison in which plaintiff was housed did not allow for medical requests to substitute as grievances. Accordingly, plaintiff's argument fails. Smith v. Wilson, No. 3:07-CV-338-TS, 2009 WL 395187, at *3 (N.D. Ind. Feb. 13, 2009) (health ...


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