Third Circuit: Corrections officials didn't interfere with Waynesburg prisoner's legal affairs

By Nicholas Malfitano | Mar 2, 2016

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit  

PHILADELPHIA – Due to “not presenting a substantial question," a federal appeals court has dismissed a civil rights complaint claiming corrections officials at Waynesburg prevented an inmate from filing legal documents.

A per curiam ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit saw the dismissal of Raphael Spearman’s complaint against Lt. Alan Morris and Officer W. Hollowood of the state correctional facility in Waynesburg. In his 2014 complaint, Spearman claimed the officers destroyed his legal documents and subsequently threatened him.

Spearman said on Feb. 2, 2014, Hollowood threatened to move him to a “hard cell” if Spearman did not cease filing grievances related to his lost legal documents, and further allegedly told Spearman “he threw [Spearman’s] legal work in the trash” to ensure he would lose his case. Though Spearman filed a grievance in regards to Hollowood’s alleged conduct, the grievance office and facility manager denied this filing due to “a lack of evidence.”

On April 21, 2014, the Secretary’s Office of Inmate Grievances and Appeals (SOIGA) declined to exercise final review over Spearman’s appeal of the facility manager’s decision, because Spearman did not attach a copy of the initial grievance and subsequent responses.

“The Secretary’s response advised Spearman, in an ‘action required’ notice, that if he did not submit these forms within 15 days, his appeal would be dismissed,” the Third Circuit said.

Further, Spearman filed a separate grievance on Feb. 12, 2014 against defendant Morris, alleging Morris “blackmailed” and threatened him into withdrawing a previously-filed grievance concerning his lost legal documents. However, this other grievance met with the same response as the one against Hollowood – initial denial, followed by a denial by the institution’s facility manager due to a lack of evidence, and a final denial from SOIGA his appeal would be dismissed in 15 days if its improper documentation was not corrected.

Spearman acknowledges that he received both “action required” notices from SOIGA, but swore under oath he filed all of the documentation necessary and associated with these matters, in addition to sending additional copies to a central office as a result of “threats” he received. However, the District Court record does not contain any of Spearman’s appeals to the Secretary’s office, only the “action required” notices sent to Spearman.

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss on Aug. 5, arguing Spearman failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, because he never properly appealed to final review. The District Court treated this as a motion for summary judgment, and granted it on Oct. 29. Spearman filed a timely notice of appeal on Nov. 19.

On appeal, the Third Circuit determined the District Court correctly granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, because Spearman failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as required by Section 1997(e) of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).

“DC-ADM 804, which governs the grievance and appeals process in Pennsylvania correctional institutions, provides for a three-step process, with final review of grievances performed by the Secretary’s office. This Court has frequently observed that a plaintiff must follow each of these steps to exhaust his administrative remedies under the PLRA,” the Third Circuit said.

The appeals court opined Spearman never perfected his appeal for final review according to applicable procedures, and thus failed to exhaust his administrative remedies.

Though Spearman claimed he filed all copies of his initial grievance and exhausted all of his administrative remedies, he alternately asserted his failure to comply with the grievances’ exhaustion requirement was due to the “illegal actions” of the defendants, specifically, “threatening, retaliation and wrongdoing, to prevent the plaintiff from properly completing the exhaustion requirements.”

“These bare, contradictory allegations are insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact,” the Third Circuit said.

The appellees are represented by Timothy Mazzocca of the Office of the Attorney General, in Pittsburgh.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit case 15-3807

U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania case 2:14-cv-01751

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at

More News

The Record Network