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Sturgil v. Williams County

United States District Court, D. North Dakota

June 26, 2017

Steven James Sturgill, Plaintiff,
v.
Williams County, ND, Ken Stenberg, Misty Falcon, Defendant.

          ORDER RE PLRA EXHAUSTION

          Charles S. Miller, Jr., United States District Court Magistrate Judge

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was a pretrial detainee at the Williams County Correctional Center ("WCCC") when he initiated this action in August 2015. Plaintiff sues defendants for having violated his federal constitutional rights related to his having been diagnosed with a MRSA infection while incarcerated by the WCCC. Plaintiff alleges that Williams County and Stenberg failed to take adequate measures to prevent prisoners in the facility from contracting MRSA. He also sues all of the defendants, including defendant Falcon (a contract nurse) over his medical care, which he claims was neither constitutionally timely nor adequate.

         Now before the court are motions for summary judgment by all defendants requesting dismissal of the case on grounds of qualified immunity and there having been no constitutional violation. The problem here, however, is that defendants Williams County and Stenberg alleged in their joint answer that plaintiff failed to exhaust his jailhouse remedies, stating:

         XIV.

Plaintiff has failed to exhaust available administrative remedies before filing suit and his suit is accordingly barred by relevant provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a).

(Doc. No. 28). And, while Williams County and Stenberg have not made that defense a part of their present motion for summary judgement, there is nothing in the record indicating that they have waived or otherwise abandoned the defense.

         II. DISCUSSION

         The Eighth Circuit has made clear to this court that it may not proceed to consider the merits of a prisoner action when a defendant has asserted as a defense the failure to exhaust jailhouse remedies as required by 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), a part of the the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”). In Benjamin v. Ward County, 93 F.Supp.3d 1106 (D.N.D. 2015), this court, after discussing the difficulty of the exhaustion issues in that case and that their resolution likely would require a mini-trial, proceeded to dismiss the case on the merits. The court concluded that this was appropriate under the particular circumstances of the case, which included (1) the fact that the case could readily be resolved on the merits while that was not true for resolving the failure-to-exhaust defense, (2) the fact that the defendant had not early on moved to dismiss on failure-to-exhaust grounds and, instead, had engaged in substantial merits discovery, and (3) the defendant urged the court to decide the case on the merits and only urged, in the alternative, that the dismissal (which would have been without prejudice) on the failure-to-exhaust grounds. The court concluded that bypassing the failure-to-exhaust defense was permissible in this situation given that the defense was not jurisdictional, that other courts had in comparable circumstances held or suggested that this course of action was permissible in appropriate cases, and that it did not appear the Eighth Circuit had ruled directly on the point. Id. at 1123-31.

         This court was reversed on appeal with the Eighth Circuit concluding the court had erred in not resolving the failure-to-exhaust defense before proceeding to the merits based on its prior precedent. In other words, there is no “wiggle room” once the affirmative defense is raised. Benjamin v. Ward County, 632 Fed.Appx. 301 (8th Cir. 2016) (unpublished per curiam). Upon remand, the defendant immediately filed a waiver of the failure-to-exhaust defense, and this court concluded that the post-remand waiver was permissible under Eighth Circuit precedent holding generally that the PLRA failure-to-exhaust defense can be waived. Consequently, the court re-entered judgment dismissing the case on the merits for the same reasons it had previously dismissed the case. Benjamin v. Ward, No. 4:12-cv-028, 2016 WL 2758266, at **2-3 (D.N.D. May 12, 1996). The case then went back up on appeal and the Eighth Circuit affirmed the dismissal, noting only the reasons for why the merits justified dismissal and without further mentioning the failure-to-exhaust defense or the post-remand waiver. Benjamin v. Ward County, __ Fed.Appx. __, 2017 WL 752144, at *1 (8th Cir. Feb. 27, 2017) (unpublished per curiam).

         This case is different from Benjamin in that here Williams County and Stenberg, while asserting in the PLRA failure-to-exhaust defense in their answer, did not include it in their motion for summary judgment. In Benjamin, the defendant had argued the failure to exhaust defense in its brief in summary of summary judgment, albeit only half-heartedly and in the alternative after first arguing for dismissal on the merits.

         This may be a distinction without a difference. Unlike Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h) which provides for a waiver of certain defenses if not asserted in the manner required by Rule 12, there is nothing in Rule 56, which requires that a party include in a motion for summary judgment all of the defenses that it then has available to it, and, for good reason. As the Seventh Circuit recently observed:

It is not unusual or unfair for a defendant who believes he has a solid legal defense to assert that defense first in a Rule 12(b)(6) motion or summary judgment motion in the hope of winning an early and relatively inexpensive victory. Filing either sort of motion simply does not waive other defenses that may be available to that party. (Consider for a moment the consequences of a contrary ruling on that point, treating as waived a substantive defense that the defendant did not include in a summary judgment motion. That rule would create powerful incentives for defendants to load up summary judgment motions with all of their defenses, including theories that would have no hope on summary judgment even though they ...

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