Spruill v. Gillis

Decision Date18 June 2004
Docket NumberNo. 02-2659.,02-2659.
Citation372 F.3d 218
PartiesRobert SPRUILL, Appellant v. Frank GILLIS; Goolier, C.O.; McGlaughlin, M.D.; Brown, P.A.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit

Eric R. Sonnenschein (Argued), Covington & Burling, Washington, D.C., for Appellant.

Michael A. Farnan (Argued), Department of Corrections, Office of Chief Counsel, Camp Hill, PA, for Appellees Gillis and Goolier.

Alan S. Gold (Argued), Sean Robins, Gold, Butkovitz & Robins, Elkins Park, PA, for Appellees McGlaughlin and Brown.

Before ALITO, CHERTOFF, and BECKER Circuit Judges.

BECKER, Circuit Judge.

This appeal raises important questions of construction of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA), Pub.L. No. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321 at 66 (1996). Plaintiff Robert Spruill is an inmate in the custody of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Spruill filed a civil rights complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against four defendants at the State Correctional Institution at Coal Township, Pennsylvania: two prison officials (Frank Gillis and Stephen Gooler1); a prison doctor (Dr. Shawn McGlaughlin); and a prison physician's assistant (Brian Brown). In his complaint, Spruill alleges that, as a result of the deliberate indifference of the defendants, his serious back condition was left untreated, or was inadequately treated, resulting in excruciating pain and susceptibility to other injuries. Pursuant to Pennsylvania's Inmate Grievance System Policy (the "Grievance System Policy"), Spruill filed a series of three inmate grievances, and he ultimately received some measure of medical care. In his grievances, Spruill did not seek money damages, but in the instant suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, he does seek money damages for the alleged violation of his rights under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), enacted as part of the PLRA, provides that a prisoner may not bring a § 1983 suit with respect to prison conditions "until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted." Because Spruill had failed to seek money damages in his grievances, the District Court concluded that he had failed to meet the exhaustion requirement of § 1997e(a), and therefore dismissed Spruill's suit in its entirety. The District Court also held in the alternative that Spruill's failure to name Brown in his grievances constituted a failure to exhaust his claims against Brown. Spruill appeals the dismissal of his claims against Gooler, Dr. McGlaughlin, and Brown. He does not appeal the dismissal of his suit against Gillis.

Courts have only recently begun to define the contours of the PLRA's exhaustion requirement, and we have not had occasion to pass on whether the exhaustion requirement is merely a termination requirement or also includes a procedural default component-that is, whether a prisoner may bring a § 1983 suit so long as no grievance process remains open to him, or whether a prisoner must properly (i.e., on pain of procedural default) exhaust administrative remedies as a prerequisite to a suit in federal court. This case requires us to confront that issue, and we hold that § 1997e(a) includes a procedural default component. We further hold that the determination whether a prisoner has "properly" exhausted a claim (for procedural default purposes) is made by evaluating the prisoner's compliance with the prison's administrative regulations governing inmate grievances, and the waiver, if any, of such regulations by prison officials.

Applying this framework to Spruill's grievances under the Grievance System Policy, we hold that (1) Spruill was not required to seek money damages in his grievances, and therefore has not procedurally defaulted his claim for money damages; (2) Spruill was required to name Brown in his grievances, but that the officials handling Spruill's grievances waived his default on this requirement; and (3) Spruill exhausted the administrative remedies under the Grievance System Policy.

Finally, turning to the merits-based arguments that the defendants advance as alternate grounds for affirmance of the District Court, we conclude that Spruill does not state a claim for deliberate indifference against Gooler, but that his allegations against Dr. McGlaughlin and Brown are sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss. We will therefore affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings against Dr. McGlaughlin and Brown.

I. Facts and Procedural History

As this case comes to us on the District Court's grant of a motion to dismiss, we must accept as true the facts as pled in Spruill's complaint. E.g., Bd. of Trs. of Teamsters Local 863 Pension Fund v. Foodtown, Inc., 296 F.3d 164, 168 (3d Cir.2002). Given that the exhaustion issue turns on the indisputably authentic documents related to Spruill's grievances, we hold that we may also consider these without converting it to a motion for summary judgment.2 See Steele v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 355 F.3d 1204, 1212 (10th Cir.2003) (quoting GFF Corp. v. Associated Wholesale Grocers, Inc., 130 F.3d 1381, 1384 (10th Cir.1997) (noting that "a defendant may submit an indisputably authentic [document] to the court to be considered on a motion to dismiss")). We now chronicle the facts as set forth in Spruill's complaint.

A. Spruill's Complaint

Spruill is currently incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Chester, Pennsylvania ("SCI-Chester"), but he has been housed in at least two other facilities. His complaint alleges that, shortly after he was transferred to the State Correctional Institution at Coal Township, Pennsylvania ("SCI-Coal") in May 2001, the defendants were deliberately indifferent to his medical needs and subjected him to unnecessarily painful medical treatment. Named as defendants in the complaint are Frank Gillis, the Superintendent at SCI-Coal; Lieutenant Steven Gooler, the Unit Manager of the Restricted Housing Unit (RHU) at SCI-Coal, where Spruill was housed during the events at issue; Dr. Shawn McGlaughlin, a prison physician; and Brian Brown, a physician's assistant.

On May 2, 2001, Spruill was transferred from the State Correctional Institution at Rockview (SCI-Rockview), Pennsylvania to SCI-Coal, where he was housed in the RHU. Upon his arrival, Spruill immediately requested to see a medical staff member about severe pain he was experiencing in his lower back area and his right leg. "Several hours later," he was interviewed by a nurse. After Spruill described his pain, and stated that he "suffers from a chronic and debilitating lower back disorder, spondylotic spinal stenosis with recurrent compression of L3 and/or L4 nerve root on right," the nurse said, "There is nothing I can do, you will need to sign up for sick call."

Spruill signed up for sick call on May 3, but the next morning, he fell due to a severe pain in his leg and back, striking the left side of his face on the metal toilet in his cell. Spruill believes he was knocked unconscious and also injured his right thumb. That same day, May 4, he informed the nurse of his fall, his additional injuries, and continuous back pain; the nurse said that she would inform the doctor. Spruill also informed Gooler about his fall, to which Gooler responded, "so, what do you want me to do?" Spruill filed an official inmate grievance on May 4 complaining about the fall and new injury. Gooler did not notify health care providers once he was informed of Spruill's injuries; at that point, Spruill had yet to be examined by a medical doctor.3

On May 5, Dr. McGlaughlin came to Spruill's cell regarding the sick call request. Dr. McGlaughlin refused to examine Spruill and stated that Spruill would never go to the infirmary. Spruill filed a second grievance on May 6 complaining that McGlaughlin had failed to conduct a physical examination of him.4

Spruill was seen by the physician's assistant, Brown, on May 7. At that encounter Brown accused Spruill of faking his injuries and did not examine him. On May 9, Spruill complained to the nurse that the pain medication he was prescribed for his back5 "wasn't working," and later that morning Spruill experienced another "extremely sharp pain" in his lower back and leg which caused him to fall again. Spruill submitted another sick call request, and was seen on May 10 by Brown in response to that request. Spruill told Brown that "the current medication was not working to reduce his pain," but Brown did not take any actions to help him. Spruill submitted another sick call request on May 11, following which he was seen by Dr. McGlaughlin on May 12. Dr. McGlaughlin stated that he did not believe there was anything wrong with Spruill's back, and accused Spruill of "playing games." Spruill filed a third grievance that day.6

On May 14, Dr. McGlaughlin had Spruill brought into the medical examination room, where Dr. McGlaughlin deliberately bent and twisted Spruill's legs "as if he was trying to shape a pretzel." Dr. McGlaughlin did not examine Spruill's face or thumb for injuries sustained on the morning of May 4.

The grievances were consolidated and denied upon Initial Review, and Spruill filed administrative appeals. The first appeal was denied, and Spruill filed a final appeal, which was also denied. The stated reasons behind the denials were that Spruill was, at the time, receiving appropriate medical care. As our rescription of the grievances demonstrates, see supra notes 3, 4 & 6, Spruill did not seek monetary relief from the prison, nor do the grievances identify Brown by name or by description.

B. Proceedings in the District Court

Spruill filed the present suit seeking monetary and injunctive relief. Because Spruill had by then been transferred to SCI-Chester, the District Court held that his claim for injunctive relief against officials at SCI-Coal was moot under Abdul-Akbar v. Watson, 4 F.3d 195, 206-07 (3d Cir.1993). The...

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