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Prison Officials' Failure to Respond to Admin. Appeal Deemed "Unavailable" Under PLRA

Fordley v. Lizarraga Docket: 19-15691, Opinion Date: November 10, 2021. Plaintiff, an inmate at Mule Creek State Prison, asserted that he was physically and sexually assaulted in March 2016 and filed a grievance in March 2016, which prison officials failed to process. He submitted a second grievance in May 2016 concerning subsequent events, but referring to the March assaults. The district court reasoned that because the March assaults were mentioned in the May grievance which was pending when the plaintiff filed his 42 U.S.C. 1983 action, an avenue of administrative relief remained open and the plaintiff could not be excused from exhausting the March grievance. The Ninth Circuit reversed, in part, the dismissal of the suit. The prison’s failure to respond to the March grievance rendered the administrative appeals process “unavailable” under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. 1997e. Where inmates take reasonably appropriate steps to exhaust but are precluded from doing so by a prison’s erroneous failure to process the grievance, the exhaustion requirement is satisfied. A later-filed grievance that alleges new complaints but refers to a previous, already exhausted grievance for context does not render the first grievance unexhausted. Because the May grievance was still pending when the complaint was filed, the district court properly deemed that grievance unexhausted.

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