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Artis-Bey v. District of Columbia

October 13, 2005


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-4840-01). (Hon. Joan Zeldon, Motions Judge). (Hon. Jeanette J. Clark, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ruiz, Associate Judge

Argued December 1, 2004

Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge,*fn1 RUIZ, Associate Judge, and KERN, Senior Judge.

This case arises out of appellant's claim that prison guards assaulted him while he was a prisoner in District of Columbia jail (D.C. jail). It requires us to parse the Inmate Grievance Procedure (IGP) of the District of Columbia Department of Corrections (DOC) and to do so in light of the requirement of the Prison Litigation Reform Act that administrative remedies be exhausted before a court action can be instituted claiming a violation of federal law. We hold that appellant's substantial compliance with the correctional facility's grievance procedure satisfies the exhaustion requirement of the Prison Litigation Reform Act. We, therefore, reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


Appellant claims that on March 31, 2000, when he was a prisoner in D.C. jail, several D.C. Corrections staff persons assaulted him while he was talking on the jail's prisoner telephone. The subject of this appeal is not the merit of his claim -- which has yet to be tested -- but rather the trial court's order granting summary judgment for the District and dismissing appellant's complaint with prejudice for failure to file timely administrative appeals in conformance with the procedures established by the Department of Corrections ("DOC").

We set out the procedural history of appellant's administrative grievance, as related by appellant,*fn2 and his subsequent complaint in Superior Court. On April 6, 2000, within a week of the alleged assault, appellant filed a formal grievance with the Administrator of the jail. He did not, however, receive any response. In fact, he waited almost four months for a response, then filed the same grievance with the Administrator on August 14. This time, appellant received a response, dated September 6, which stated, without elaboration, that "[t]his matter has been resolved." Appellant claims he received the Administrator's response on September 29, and immediately filed an appeal on September 30 with the DOC Associate Director. He received no response. Undeterred, appellant filed a second appeal with the DOC Associate Director on October 21; again, he had no response. On November 17, appellant filed an appeal with the DOC Director, with the same result: no response.

On June 27, 2001, appellant filed suit in the District of Columbia Superior Court against the District and several "John Does" for money damages arising out of the March 31, 2000 incident, claiming under both federal and District of Columbia law.*fn3 On February 19, 2002, appellant filed a motion to amend the complaint to identify by name the five officers he claims assaulted him. Although the trial court granted appellant's motion to amend his complaint, the officers were never served, nor did they enter appearances or participate in any of the proceedings in the trial court. The District filed motions to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. See Super. Ct. Civ. R. 12 (b)(6) (dismissal may be granted for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted); Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56 (summary judgment). The federal claims, the District argued, are barred by appellant's failure to meet the Prison Litigation Reform Act's exhaustion requirement. The District argued that the common law claims are precluded because appellant did not give timely notification to the Mayor's office as required by D.C. Code § 12-309 (2001). The trial court granted summary judgment to the District and dismissed appellant's complaint with prejudice after determining that appellant's claims were barred by the Prison Litigation Reform Act because he did not properly follow the DOC's grievance appeal process. Appellant timely noted this appeal.


As a preliminary matter, the District raises a jurisdictional issue: whether the trial court's order dismissing the complaint is final for purposes of appeal. The District notes that in its motions it requested judgment only in its favor, not on behalf of the five individual officers whom the trial court had permitted appellant to join as co-defendants with the District. It is our well-established rule that a judgment of the trial court is not appealable unless it disposes of all claims against all defendants. See Umana v. Swidler & Berlin, Chartered, 669 A.2d 717, 721 (D.C. 1995) (holding that an order is not final for purposes of appeal if there remain outstanding claims against any defendants). Therefore, if appellant's claims against the five individual officers are still outstanding in Superior Court, the order of dismissal is not appealable. As noted, although the trial court granted appellant's motion to amend his complaint, appellant did not actually file an amended complaint joining the officers, nor did he serve them, nor did they appear before the court. The jurisdictional question is whether, assuming the complaint was amended to include claims against the five individuals, the court's order dismissing the complaint was a final order with regard to these co-defendants as well as the District.*fn4 We conclude that it was.

In its order dismissing the complaint, the trial court not only granted summary judgment for the District, but also "further ordered that the Complaint is dismissed, with prejudice." In Moradi v. Protas, Kay, Spivok & Protas, Chartered, 494 A.2d 1329 (D.C. 1985), we faced a similar situation in which the trial court dismissed the plaintiff's entire complaint on motion from one co-defendant. When the plaintiff then sought to appeal, one of the other co-defendants argued that the court lacked jurisdiction because he "was not served with process, and that the claim against him was therefore still pending . . . ." Id. at 1332 n.6. We held that because the trial "court went beyond the limits of appellee's motion and dismissed the entire complaint, including the claim against [the unserved co-defendant] . . . there [was] no unresolved fragment of this case left pending in the trial court . . . ." Id. As a result, we concluded, we had jurisdiction to hear the appeal from the order dismissing the complaint. See id. In this case, both the language of the court's order of dismissal, as well as its rationale for dismissing the complaint, lead us to conclude that the trial court dismissed the entire complaint.*fn5 As in Moradi, that order was appealable as a final order. Cf. Griffith v. Sandler, 99 A.2d 194, 194 (D.C. 1953) (citing Super. Ct. Civ. R. 54 (b)) (holding, in a case where some of the co-defendants had not been served, that the court has no jurisdiction where "final judgment [has been] entered on one or more but less than all of the claims").


A. The Prison Litigation Reform Act and appellant's Common Law Tort Claims

The Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997 (e)(a) (2003) (hereinafter "PLRA"), provides that "[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 of this title, or any other Federal law . . . until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted." The purpose of the PLRA is to give prison authorities notice of problems in correctional facilities and an opportunity to resolve them pursuant to established internal procedures prior to litigation in court. See Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 524-25 (2002). Thus, the exhaustion requirement has been interpreted as applying "[e]ven when the prisoner seeks relief not available in grievance proceedings, notably money damages . . . ."*fn6 Id. at 524 (citing Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731, 740-41 (2001)). As the PLRA states, however, it applies only to claims pursuant to section 1983 or other federal law, not to state law claims. See, e.g., Lopez v. Smiley, 375 F. Supp. 2d 19, 29 (D. Conn. 2005) (allowing inmate to proceed on common law claim for battery while dismissing his federal claim, holding that a state law "tort claim is not barred by . . . [a failure to meet] the exhaustion ...

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