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Davis v. Commonwealth

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Norfolk

June 3, 2019

COMMONWEALTH & others. [1]

          Heard: March 8, 2019.

         Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on October 17, 2013. The case was heard by Rosalind H. Miller, J., on a motion for summary judgment.

          C. Raye Poole for the defendants.

          Joseph Davis, pro se, submitted a brief.

          Present: Milkey, Shin, & Englander, JJ.

          MILKEY, J.

         During the relevant time period, the plaintiff, Joseph Davis, was an inmate at Massachusetts Correctional Institution, Cedar Junction (MCI-Cedar Junction). On October 21, 2010, another inmate there slashed Davis's face with a razor blade, causing serious harm. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Davis sought to file grievances with respect to the failure by prison officials to protect him from such harm, as well as with respect to their treatment of him after the attack. Later, he added additional grievances, such as one questioning how the surveillance footage of the incident was lost. His grievances were rejected as untimely filed.[2] Davis subsequently filed a personal injury action against prison officials based on both Federal and State law. On summary judgment, a Superior Court judge dismissed the action on the grounds that he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. On appeal, Davis argues that prison practices -- in particular the unavailability of grievance forms and the difficulty of filing such forms in the unit in which he was housed -- prevented him from timely filing. We vacate and remand for further proceedings.

         Regulatory background.

         The filing of inmate grievances is governed by the Federal Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (FPLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a) (2012), and its State counterpart, G. L. c. 127, §§ 38E-38H. These statutes sought "to stem the tide of frivolous litigation by prison inmates." Ryan v. Pepe, 65 Mass.App.Ct. 833, 838-839 (2006), citing Longval v. Superior Court Pep't of the Trial Court, 434 Mass. 718, 718-719 (2001). Under the statutes, in order to pursue actions in court regarding the conditions of their confinement, inmates first must pursue a grievance through a regularized administrative process. If an inmate fails to exhaust his available administrative remedies in this manner, he is barred from pursuing judicial relief. See Ross v. Blake, 136 S.Ct. 1850, 1854-1855 (2016); Ryan, supra at 839.[3]

         The Department of Correction has promulgated regulations governing the grievance process. See 103 Code Mass. Regs. §§ 491.01-491.27 (2017). At the time of the incident, those regulations stated that inmates must be given ready access to grievance forms even if they are being held in segregated units such as the "Special Management Unit" at MCI-Cedar Junction known as "Ten Block." See 103 Code Mass. Regs. § 491.09(1) (2001) ("Grievance forms shall be readily available to all inmates, including those in segregated units").[4] The 2010 MCI-Cedar Junction orientation manual (2010 orientation manual), which all inmates at MCI-Cedar junction were provided upon arrival, amplifies this point by extending its application to the full grievance process: "All inmates shall have unimpeded access to the inmate grievance process in order to address legitimate concerns or complaints."

         The grievance regulation that applied in 2010 laid out two paths through which an inmate grievance "may be filed." 103 Code Mass. Regs. § 491.09(3) (2001). One was by filing it "directly with the [prison's] Superintendent, Deputy Superintendent, Facility Administrator, or Institutional Grievance Coordinator [(IGC)]." 103 Code Mass. Regs. § 491.09(3)(A). The other was "by depositing the completed form in a locked mailbox or drop box." 103 Code Mass. Regs. § 491.09(3)(B). The 2010 orientation manual added some specificity about the filing process: "All completed forms shall be submitted directly in hand to the IGC, Superintendent, Deputy Superintendent, or by depositing the them [sic] in the locked mailbox or the locked grievance boxes located in your housing unit and the east and west wing corridor." Certain details of the grievance process are reserved for later discussion.

         Factual background.

         With this case having been resolved on summary judgment, we review the facts in the light most favorable to Davis, the nonmoving party. See Augat, Inc. v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 410 Mass. 117, 120 (1991).

         After Davis's face was slashed, he was taken to the prison's medical center where he spent approximately three days recovering before being transferred to Ten Block as a result of the altercation. While he was in the medical center, he thrice requested a grievance form from correction officials or medical personnel. All three attempts were unsuccessful, with ...

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