Bell v. Management & Training Corporation et al
ORDER denying 34 Motion for Summary Judgment; signed by Honorable David C. Bramlette, III on December 7, 2017 (JBR)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF MISSISSIPPI
CAUSE NO. 5:16-cv-39-DCB-MTP
MANAGEMENT & TRAINING CORPORATION, et al.
ORDER AND OPINION
This cause is before the Court on a motion for summary
Jonsha Bell’s response, applicable statutory and case law, and
being otherwise fully informed in the premises, the Court finds as
A prisoner sued the for-profit operator of a Mississippi
prison, alleging civil rights violations and negligence, after
inmates attacked him in his cell early one morning. The prison
operator moves for summary judgment, pointing to the prisoner’s
failure to exhaust administrative remedies pre-suit. The prisoner
rejoins that the suit should proceed because he has exhausted all
such remedies available to him. Whether the suit should indeed
proceed turns on the interplay between the Prison Litigation Reform
Department of Corrections.
Defendant MTC is a national for-profit prison operator. [Doc.
1, ¶5] It contracted with the Mississippi Department of Corrections
(“MDOC”) to operate the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility
(“WCCF”). [Doc. 1, ¶5]
Plaintiff Jonsha Bell was a WCCF inmate in late 2015. [Doc.
1, ¶4] He alleges that around 4:00 A.M. one morning, he was “beaten
and stabbed repeatedly” by other WCCF inmates. [Doc. 1, ¶¶ 7-9]
Faulting MTC for creating an unsafe prison environment, Bell sued
it for (1) civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (2)
negligent hiring and supervision; and (3) vicarious liability.
[Doc. 1, ¶¶ 20-28]
In his Complaint, Bell catalogs a pattern of security-related
oversight at WCCF —— a pattern he contends culminated in his
attack. Bell alleges for example that MTC employees emboldened an
already-unruly prison gang population by helping inmates sell
contraband and by ignoring homemade weapons. [Doc. 1, ¶¶12-16]
Prison security was further compromised, Bell submits, by MTC’s
failure to ensure that cell-doors locked and its disinclination to
discipline inmates for roaming the prison halls after-hours. [Doc.
Administrative Remedy” to the MDOC. [Doc. 34-1, p. 2] In it, he
described his attack and asked the MDOC to re-evaluate security
measures at MTC facilities, award him damages for stolen property
and personal injury, and prosecute his attackers. [Doc. 34-1, p.
The MDOC rejected Bell’s request. [Doc. 34-1, p. 1] Bell
learned his request was rejected through a form completed by
Administrative Remedy Program Director Pennington. [Doc. 34-1, p.
1] The form explains that Bell’s request was rejected because it
asked for relief “beyond the power of the [MDOC] to grant.” [Doc.
34-1, p. 1]
The parties dispute the legal significance of this rejection
in the context of the Prison Litigation Reform Act. MTC insists
that Bell should have “appealed” the rejection, and because he
failed to do so, he cannot sue in this Court. Bell rejoins that
the rejection removed his complaint from the MDOC’s administrative
remedy procedure entirely, leaving him with no choice but to sue.
The Court addresses each contention in turn.
A prisoner cannot bring a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit challenging
administrative remedies. See 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). So holds the
Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), which forms the basis of
the motion before the Court.
Congress created the PLRA to “reduce the quantity and improve
the quality of prisoner suits.” Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516,
524 (2002). The PLRA borrows the concept of exhaustion from
administrative law. Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 93 (2006).
Exhaustion doctrine generally holds that “no one is entitled to
judicial relief for a supposed or threatened injury until the
prescribed administrative remedy has been exhausted.” Id. at 89.
Exhaustion is a threshold issue. And the Court must address
it to determine whether this litigation is proceeding in the right
forum at the right time. Dillon v. Rogers, 596 F.3d 260, 271 (5th
Cir. 2010). Translated to the prison context, exhaustion requires
a prisoner to follow a prison’s internal grievance procedures
before suing in court. The purpose of PLRA exhaustion is to give
internally.’” Johnson v. Johnson, 385 F.3d 503, 516 (5th Cir. 2004)
(quoting Porter, 534 U.S. at 525).
PLRA non-exhaustion is an affirmative defense. Jones v. Bock,
549 U.S. 199, 216 (2007). Thus, Defendant MTC must prove that Bell
failed to exhaust available administrative remedies. Id. at 216.
If MTC carries its burden, dismissal is mandatory. Thorson v. Epps,
701 F.3d 444, 446 (5th Cir. 2012); Gonzalez v. Seal, 702 F.3d 785,
788 (5th Cir. 2012) (per curiam).
The Court looks to WCCF’s grievance procedures to determine
the steps Bell must follow to exhaust available administrative
remedies. Cowart v. Erwin, 837 F.3d 444, 452 (5th Cir. 2016); see
also Jones, 549 U.S. at 218 (“[I]t is the prison’s requirements,
exhaustion.”). In determining whether Bell has exhausted available
Sterling, 788 F.3d 507, 509 (5th Cir. 2015) (per curiam).
The MDOC controls WCCF’s grievance procedures. See MISS. CODE
ANN. § 47-5-801 (authorizing the MDOC to adopt administrative
review procedures for state prisons). And the MDOC implements a
two-step grievance procedure known as the Administrative Remedy
Program (“ARP”). But before any “step” is taken, the ARP Director
“screens” prisoner complaints. [Doc. 34-2, p. 3].
As part of the “screening” process, the ARP Director conducts
an initial compliance review. [Doc. 34-2, p. 2] His task is to
process.” [Doc. 34-2, p. 3] If the ARP Director concludes the
matter is “appealable through this [ARP] process,” the complaint
is “accepted” into the ARP, and it proceeds to “step one” and, if
appealed, a “step two” review. [Doc. 34-2, pp. 3-4]
But if the complaint is rejected —— because, for example, it
seeks relief that the MDOC lacks the power to grant —— it is “not
appealable” through the ARP, and the prisoner is unable to proceed
to “step one.” See, e.g., Yankton v. Epps, 652 Fed. App’x 242, 245
(5th Cir. 2016) (a screener’s rejection of a complaint forecloses
acceptance into the ARP and precludes a prisoner from proceeding
to “step one”); Berry v. Wexford Health Sources, 3:14-cv-665, 2016
WL 4030934, at *2 (S.D. Miss. July 26, 2016) (same).
The Fifth Circuit “strictly” approaches the PLRA’s exhaustion
“available” remedies need be exhausted. Ross v. Blake, 136 S. Ct.
1850, 1855 (2016); Davis v. Fernandez¸798 F.3d 290, 294 (5th Cir.
2015).2 And a remedy is “available” only if it is “capable of use
to obtain some relief for the action complained of.” Ross, 136 S.
Ct. at 185 (internal citation and quotations omitted).
Although the availability of administrative remedies is a
question of law, whether Bell has exhausted those remedies is a
mixed question of law and fact. Dillon, 596 F.3d at 266. To warrant
Stated differently, a prisoner must “pursue the grievance
remedy to conclusion.” Wilson v. Epps, 776 F.3d 296, 301 (5th Cir.
The Fifth Circuit also declares administrative remedies
exhausted when a prisoner’s complaint gives prison officials “fair
notice” of the problem, and “there are no further avenues for
administrative resolution.” Moussazadeh v. Tex. Dep’t of Crim.
Justice, 703 F.3d 781, 788 (5th Cir. 2012).
summary judgment, MTC must show beyond doubt all of the elements
of the defense of exhaustion. Id. at 266. And here, that means MTC
must show that Bell failed to exhaust the available administrative
remedies implemented by WCCF and prescribed by the MDOC’s two-step
Turning to Bell’s efforts here, it is undisputed that Bell
filed a request for an administrative remedy, as contemplated by
the ARP screening procedures. [Doc. 35, p. 5] And it is undisputed
that after the ARP Director returned a form indicating that the
request was “rejected” because the relief sought was “beyond the
power of the Mississippi Department of Corrections to grant,” Bell
sued in this Court. [Doc. 34-1, p. 1]
MTC contends that because Bell completed “step one” but not
administrative remedies. [Doc. 35, p. 1] MTC’s argument flows from
its assumption that Bell entered “step one” of the ARP when he
filed his request for an administrative remedy. [Doc. 35, p. 2]
The ARP Director’s “rejection” to proceed in the ARP, MTC insists,
is an adverse “step one” decision that Bell was obligated to
appeal. [Doc. 35, pp. 5-6]
Bell describes the ARP grievance procedure differently. [Doc.
37, p. 2] He argues that the ARP Director’s “rejection” of his
complaint at the screening stage denied him entry into the ARP,
full-stop. [Doc. 37. P. 4] After the ARP Director “rejected” his
request to enter the ARP, Bell reasons, he lacked an available
administrative remedy. [Doc. 37, p. 4]
Both parties cite Berry v. Wexford Health Sources, a recent
Mississippi opinion with similar facts, in their papers.3 [Docs.
35, pp. 8-9; 37, p. 2] In Berry, a state prisoner sued the prison’s
private healthcare provider complaining of deliberate indifference
towards his medical needs. Id. at *1. But before he sued, the
prisoner filed a formal request for administrative remedy with the
screening stage as “beyond the power of the Mississippi Department
of Corrections to grant.” Id. The healthcare provider moved to
administrative remedies. Id. The court denied the motion. Id. at
In so holding, the court advised that the prisoner exhausted
extension, the PLRA) when his complaint was denied at the screening
phase. Id. After that denial, the court reasoned, the prisoner
lacked any “available administrative remedy,” and was free to seek
judicial redress. Id. Central to the court’s conclusion was its
Berry v. Wexford Health Sources, 3:14-cv-665, 2016 WL 4030934 (S.D.
Miss. July 26, 2016)
characterization of a rejection at the screening stage as a prestep-one —— or “step zero” —— rejection from which no appeal can
be taken within the ARP system. Id.
Although it was the first to cite Berry, MTC attempts to
explain-away the opinion in its reply brief. [Doc. 39, pp. 4-5]
MTC casts Berry as an “unpublished and non-precedential opinion”
authority.” [Doc. 39, p. 4] And without explaining why that’s so,
MTC simply declares that “the PLRA and all binding authority
applying it demand that Bell’s federal claims be dismiss [sic].”
[Doc. 39, p. 5]
MTC is correct on one point. Berry is an unpublished district
court opinion and is
non-binding. But MTC nowhere
explains why it is wrong to construe a complaint’s rejection at
the screening phase as an exhaustion of available administrative
possibility of some relief,” as it did here. See Booth v. Churner,
532 U.S. 731, 735 n. 4 (2001). Nor is it clear from MTC’s briefing
how Berry’s common-sense characterization of the MDOC’s grievance
procedures flouts “binding precedent and controlling statutory
authority,” much less how such authority “demands” dismissal here.
The text of the ARP supports Bell’s position. A prisoner is
not within the ARP —— and has not reached “step one” —— when his
complaint is “rejected” at the screening phase. [Doc. 34-2, p. 3]
The ARP itself distinguishes the screening phase from the two-step
ARP process, requiring screening “prior to assignment to the First
Step.” [Doc. 34-2, p. 3]; see also Yankton, 652 Fed. App’x at 245
(a request is not “accepted” into the ARP unless and until it meets
“specified criteria.”). And the ARP states that a “rejected”
request for administrative remedy is “not appealable through this
process.” [Doc. 34-2, p. 3] Thus, MTC’s argument that Bell should
have “appealed” his rejection —— a rejection the ARP deems “not
appealable” —— is unpersuasive.
After Bell’s complaint was denied entry into the ARP, he
lacked an available administrative remedy. There was no “next
step.” See Cowart, 837 F.3d at 452 (affirming district court’s
determination that prisoner exhausted available remedies when
prison grievance procedure precluded prisoner from taking the
“next step”). And the ARP was no longer “capable of use to obtain
some relief for the action complained of,” Ross, 136 S. Ct. at
185, for the simple fact that the ARP’s own rules prohibited Bell
from appealing the ARP Director’s rejection of his pre-step-one
complaint. [Doc. 34-2, p. 3] Unable to appeal the ARP Director’s
adverse screening decision, and therefore prohibited from even
“pursue[d] the grievance remedy to conclusion” before filing suit.
Wilson, 776 F.3d at 301.
The ARP Director’s erroneous “rejection” of Bell’s complaint
deprived Bell of the opportunity to resolve it within the ARP. MTC
offers no reason why the ARP Director chose to “reject” Bell’s
complaint. And the rejection is particularly puzzling because it
appears that other prisoner complaints requesting money damages
have been “accepted” into the ARP. See, e.g., Davis v. Wexford
Health Servs., 2:11-cv-142, 2013 WL 1180891, at *1 (S.D. Miss.
Mar. 20, 2013). Granted, some of the relief Bell sought – money
damages, for example – was beyond the power of the MDOC to grant.
But as MTC admits in its briefing, the MDOC is empowered to provide
some of the relief Bell requested; it could fire gang-affiliated
maintenance. [Doc. 35, p. 8]
The ARP Director erred in prohibiting Bell from participating
in the ARP on the basis that some of the relief he sought was
beyond the power of the MDOC to grant. There was simply “no next
step (save filing a lawsuit) to which” Bell could advance. Wilson,
776 F.3d at 301. Shorn of an administrative remedy, Bell quite
rightly looked to the courts to adjudicate his claim.
MTC does not complain that Bell’s request for administrative
remedy failed to provide prison officials with “fair notice” of
the problem. Moussazadeh, 703 F.3d at 788. Nor can it. Bell’s
request describes in detail the alleged assault and the security
measures that he contends facilitated it. [Doc. 34-1, p. 2] And
the facts Bell cited in his administrative remedy request are the
same facts that Bell marshals in support of his § 1983 claim.
[Compare Doc. 34-1, p. 2 with Doc. 1, ¶¶ 13-14]
MTC has not met its summary judgment burden of proving that
Bell failed to exhaust available administrative remedies. Dillon,
596 F.3d at 266. To the contrary, the record confirms that Bell
sought administrative redress for his complaints within MDOC’s
grievance-processing scheme as far as the MDOC and the ARP Director
would allow him. The Court therefore finds that Bell has exhausted
such administrative remedies as are available to him, and denies
MTC’s motion for summary judgment on exhaustion grounds as to
Bell’s federal claims.
Turning to Bell’s state-law claims, MTC urges dismissal under
Section 47-5-803 of the Mississippi Code. That statute requires a
prisoner to exhaust ARP procedures before suing “the State of
Mississippi, the Department of Corrections or its officials or
employees.” MISS. CODE. ANN. § 47-5-803. No Mississippi appellate
court has determined whether the operator of a private prison is
an “official or employee” of the MDOC under the statute.4
Several opinions from the Southern District of Mississippi have
recognized the absence of binding Mississippi authority on the issue. See, e.g.,
Pickens v. Mgmt. & Training Corp., 3:16-cv-913, 2017 WL 5559847, at *3 n. 19
(S.D. Miss. Nov. 17, 2017) (recognizing the issue as unresolved by state
authorities but concluding that exhaustion does not apply to claims against
But the Court need not resolve that unsettled issue. The
identical to the exhaustion requirement contained in Section 475-803 of the Mississippi Code. See J.H. v. Mgmt. & Training Corp.,
3:16-cv-802, 2017 WL 4847532, at *1 n. 4 (S.D. Miss. Oct. 26,
2017). And the parties agree on the point. [Docs. 35, p. 9; 37, p.
9] Having determined that Bell exhausted “such administrative
remedies as are available” under the PLRA, the Court concludes
that Bell’s efforts to administratively resolve his grievance
constitute “exhaust[ion] [of] the remedies as provided” in the ARP
under Section 47-5-803 of the Mississippi Code.
MTC is not entitled to summary judgment on the ground that
Bell failed to exhaust available administrative remedies under the
PLRA and Section 47-5-803 of the Mississippi Code. Bell as a matter
of law exhausted available administrative remedies under both
administrative remedy. Through this pre-step-one rejection, the
ARP Director precluded Bell from pursuing relief within the ARP
framework, deprived Bell of the right to an intra-ARP appeal, and
eliminated any possibility that the ARP was “capable of use to
private prisons); Evans v. Mgmt. & Training Corp., 3:15-cv-770, 2017 WL 78803,
at *3 (S.D. Miss. Jan. 6, 2017) (finding no binding authority on the issue).
obtain some relief for the action complained of.” Ross, 136 S. Ct.
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Defendant Management & Training
Corporation’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 34] is DENIED.
SO ORDERED, this the 7th day of December, 2017.
/s/ David Bramlette_________
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?