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Sapp v. Kimbrell

September 27, 2010


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California Frank C. Damrell, Senior District Judge, Presiding D.C. No. CV-02-02576-FCD.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paez, Circuit Judge


Argued and Submitted May 7, 2010 -- Pasadena, California

Before: Betty B. Fletcher and Richard A. Paez, Circuit Judges, and Edward R. Korman, District Judge.*fn1


In 2002, Ivan Terrance Sapp, a California state prisoner, filed a series of administrative grievances seeking medical care for an eye condition. He never exhausted these grievances, however, because a prison official screened them out for various reasons. Sapp ultimately filed this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which the district court dismissed because Sapp had not exhausted his administrative remedies, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA").

In this appeal, we must decide whether a prison official's improper screening of an inmate's administrative appeals excuses the inmate's failure to exhaust under the PLRA and, if so, whether Sapp's appeals were improperly screened. We hold that, although improper screening may excuse a failure to satisfy the PLRA's exhaustion requirement, the facts here do not show that prison officials improperly screened out Sapp's administrative grievances. Accordingly, we affirm the dismissal of Sapp's lawsuit.

I. Background

In 1989, Sapp suffered an eye injury in prison that continues to cause him problems. In 2002, while incarcerated at the California state prison in Sacramento, he sought medical care, including eyelid surgery, but it is unclear whether he ever received it. Sapp claims to have filed over twenty administrative appeals about the issue with the prison. In December 2002, Sapp filed this § 1983 suit in federal court alleging deliberate indifference to his medical needs and challenging related actions. In particular, Sapp alleged that defendant Douglas Peterson, a prison doctor, denied him needed medical treatment; that defendant D. Kimbrell, the prison's administrative appeals coordinator, improperly screened his grievances seeking medical care; and that defendant P. Van Cor, a prison official, denied him an "Olson" review*fn2 of his medical records. The district court dismissed Sapp's suit without prejudice for failure to exhaust his administrative remedies, as required by the PLRA, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a).

Although Sapp did not exhaust his administrative remedies, he did pursue some administrative appeals before filing this suit. We first describe California prisons' grievance procedures and then detail the administrative grievances that Sapp pursued.

A. California Prisons' Grievance Procedures

California regulations allow a prisoner to appeal any action or decision by a prison official that adversely affects the prisoner's welfare. Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 3084.1(a). To exhaust a grievance, an inmate must pursue his appeal through four levels, one "informal" and three "formal." Id. §§ 3084.5, 3084.1(a). An inmate must file the initial grievance within 15 working days of the action being appealed, and he must file each administrative appeal within 15 working days of receiving an adverse decision at a lower level. Id. § 3084.6(c).

At the informal level, an inmate must seek to have the involved prison employee resolve the problem. Id. § 3084.5(a). If this is unsuccessful, the inmate must then fill out a "Form 602," the "Inmate/Parolee Appeal Form," describing the problem and action requested. Id. § 3084.2(a). An "appeals coordinator" at the prison "screen[s]" each appeal before forwarding it on for review on the merits. Id. § 3084.3(a). The appeals coordinator may reject, or "screen," an appeal for various reasons, including failure to comply with the 15-day time limit, incompleteness or omission of necessary supporting documents, or failure to attempt to resolve the grievance informally. Id. §§ 3084.3, 3084.6(c). When the appeals coordinator rejects an appeal, he must fill out a form that explains why the appeal is unacceptable and instructs the inmate on what he must do to qualify the appeal for processing. Id. § 3084.3(d). If it appears from the appeal form that the prisoner has difficulty describing the problem in writing, the appeals coordinator must arrange an interview with the prisoner to help clarify or complete the appeal. Id. § 3084.3(b)(3). Once the appeals coordinator allows an appeal to go forward, the inmate must pursue it through three levels of formal review. Id. § 3084.5.

B. Sapp's Attempts to Exhaust

Although Sapp filed numerous grievances relating to his eye condition, none was ever considered on the merits.

First, in December 2001, Sapp mentioned his eye condition in a second-level appeal of a different grievance seeking care for a skin condition. Prison officials rejected this appeal on the ground that the eye issue was "new" and had to be submitted in a separate appeal.

Sapp then filed a first-level appeal regarding his eye condition in early June 2002. This appeal was screened for reasons not apparent on the record before us. Sapp again filed a first-level appeal on June 9, 2002, that explained that he had "been having great difficulty in obtaining adequate medical care" since arriving at the prison in July 2001. He explained that doctors had referred him to see an eye specialist at the University of California at Davis ("UC Davis"), but that "this issue continues to go unrecognized." He explained that he had "submitted medical slips to medical staff" and that the prison's medical staff were "aware of the issues." In the "Action Requested" box on the form, Sapp indicated that he sought to "recover from a critical problem" and that "the only way to remedy the situation is to continue filing 602s [appeal forms] and try to remedy the issue any way possible."

The next day, Kimbrell, the prison's appeals coordinator, screened out that appeal on the ground that Sapp had "not adequately completed the [602 form] or attached the proper documents." Kimbrell noted that "[a]nother appeal was screened out and returned to you [five days earlier] on the same issue, it appears. Be specific about eye condition and action requested."

Eight days later, on June 18, 2002, Sapp visited the UC Davis Medical Center's Ophthalmology Department and received only an examination. Sapp then filed another inmate appeal on June 30, 2002, that described the problem as "a long delay in obtaining adequate medical treatment for an [sic] critical eye injury which occurred [in 1989, while incarcerated]." He explained that the medical records were in his prisoner file and that he was "having great difficulty in filing a[n] inmate 602 appeal to exhaust the issue." In the "Action Requested" box, Sapp indicated that he sought "treatment as soon as possible, because I need the eyelid surgery, and I may have developed an eye infection." He also appended a two-page description of the problem, including a hand-drawn diagram of his eye and an account of the events that led to his injury.

Two days later, on July 2, Kimbrell screened out this appeal, again because Sapp had not adequately completed the form or attached proper documents. This time, Kimbrell specifically instructed Sapp to attach his Health Care Request form (Form 7362) or to explain why the form was not available and to "[c]larify the issue, have you been treated at SAC [this facility] for this condition? If you have not recently requested treatment at SAC submit of [sic] CDC 7362 to the Clinic." Boilerplate text at the bottom of the form advised: "This screening action may not be appealed unless you allege that the above reason is inaccurate. In such case, please return this form to the Appeals Coordinator with the necessary information."

In response, Sapp filed a Health Care Services Request, Form 7362, on July 20 seeking "follow-up of UC Davis otho eye exam." Four days later, prison staff responded with a note indicating that Sapp would be "seen within the week or 2 weeks." The record does not indicate whether or when the medical staff actually saw Sapp. The record before us does not show that Sapp ever filed an administrative grievance alleging that prison medical staff failed to see him as promised.

On July 30, Sapp submitted a Reasonable Modification or Accommodation Request under the Americans with Disabilities Act seeking help pursuing his administrative remedies. Sapp described his disability as the "lack of knowledge to write out a 602 [appeal form] to suite [sic] the appeals coordinator's approval, no matter how clearly it is stated." Sapp explained that he had only a seventh ...

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