By Kelsey Mellan
On March 23, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in Custis v. Davis, a civil appeal of the district court’s sua sponte dismissal of a federal prisoner’s grievance claim. Plaintiff Ryricka Custis, a federal inmate, filed a complaint through his prison’s administrative grievance process but was subsequently denied relief. He then filed suit in the Eastern District of Virginia. The district court denied his claim sua sponte based on his failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The Fourth Circuit subsequently vacated the district court’s dismissal and remanded for further proceedings.
Facts & Procedural History
Custis, an inmate at Virginia’s Sussex I State Prison (“Prison”), was missing toes on his right foot and thus needed to be assigned to a bottom bunk in a bottom-tier cell. He originally received the necessary bunk assignment, but on August 18, 2014, he was temporarily moved to an upper-tier cell. On September 2, 2014, he fell while climbing the stairs to his cell, injuring his neck and back. He filed an Internal Complaint on September 11, 2014. Approximately one week later, on September 17, his complaint was denied because his assignment was made “based on open compatible available beds with a bottom bunk.”
Custis filed his Regular Grievance the next day, and the Prison received it on September 25. The Prison rejected the grievance on the same day, citing insufficient information, and ordered Custis to file an amended Regular Grievance with the requisite information. Custis filed this document on October 1, 2014. This Grievance was subsequently denied because it was not filed within 3o days of the alleged incident in conformity with the Virginia Department of Corrections Grievance Procedure (“VDOC GP”). The filing date was set for September 17, 2014. After a series of filings and appeals, Custis’s appeal of this rejection to the VDOC was denied.
Custis filed this law suit in the Eastern District of Virginia. The district court sua sponte ordered Custis to submit evidence that he completely exhausted his administrative remedies through the VDOC. Custis complied by submitting his prior grievances and appeals. The district court then dismissed his claim for failure to exhaust administrative remedies because he failed to follow the prison’s grievance procedure timeline. This timely appealed followed.
Failure to Exhaust Administrative Remedies
The Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court’s dismissal for failure to exhaust available administrative remedies pursuant to precedent set in Talbot v. Lucy Corr Nursing Home. Custis raised two issues on appeal: (1) did the district court errr when it sua sponte examined whether Custis exhausted his administrative remedies, and if it did not err, (2) did the district court err when it found that Custis failed to exhaust his available administrative remedies.
In Jones v. Bock, the Supreme Court determined that an inmate does not need to demonstrate exhaustion of administrative remedies in his or her complaint. Rather, “failure to exhaust” is an affirmative defense that the defendant must raise. There are two rare exceptions to this rule that would allow the court to sua sponte dismiss a claim for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.
The first exception to the Jones rule is that a court may sua sponte dismiss a complaint when the alleged facts in the complaint, taken as true, prove that the inmate failed to exhaust all administrative remedies. Here, it is not clear from the face of Custis’s complaint that he had failed to exhaust all remedies. Even the district court did not conclude that he failed to exhaust said remedies – instead, the court ordered him to provide further documentation for its independent inquiry in the exhaustion of these remedies. Additionally, it is not clear that Custis’s assertion that he “attempted” to exhaust his administrative remedies meant that he tried and failed to exhaust them or that he was completely unable to exhaust said remedies. Thus, Custis’s complaint did not satisfy the first exception to the Jones administrative exhaustion exception.
The second exception to the Jones rule allows a court to sua sponte dismiss an inmate’s complaint for failure to exhaust administrative remedies when the court has given the inmate an opportunity to address or respond to the alleged failure to exhaust. However, this exception was created before Jones and does not survive post-Jones. Here, while the district court allowed Custis to amend his Grievance to include additional requisite information, it did not give him a chance to respond to its dismissal for failure to exhaust.
Thus, the Fourth Circuit determined the district court erred when it sua sponte examined Custis’s exhaustion of available administrative remedies. Additionally, the Fourth Circuit decided the record in this case was incomplete and the inquiry was premature. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit did not specifically decide whether Custis actually exhausted all remedies. Instead, it remanded this case to the district court for further fact finding.