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Judge reinstates ex-inmate’s lawsuit

Court:?Dismissal of claims was improper

An opinion written last week by the chief judge of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia has reinstated a lawsuit brought by a former inmate at the State Correctional Institution Houtzdale, claiming he was deprived of his wheelchair and a walker while in the institution.

The former inmate, Kareem Garrett, who now lives in Lansdowne, has filed a civil rights complaint under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, claiming medical personnel and prison authorities were indifferent to his medical needs.

Garrett also contends that authorities retaliated against him for complaining about his situation.

For instance, he charges that he was written up for asking other inmates to assist him in getting around.

He contends that he suffered a fall in a shower because he was denied assistive services and he was refused the use of a handicapped-accessible shower.

Garrett was an inmate at the former SCI Graterford and in 2014 was transferred to SCI Houtzdale.

While at Graterford, he was utilizing a wheelchair and a walker for mobility, but the medical staff at Houtzdale determined he could walk on his own and discontinued his use of the medical devices.

The decisions made by authorities at Houtzdale resulted in frequent falls and injuries and prevented him from obtaining food or standing in line for medications, he charged.

He initially filed grievances through the prison system and the Department of Corrections, after review of his medical record by the staff off the Bureau of Health Care Services, determined “that the medical care provided (to Garrett) was reasonable and appropriate,” and “no evidence of neglect or deliberate indifference has been found.”

Garrett pursued his complaints by filing a federal lawsuit, originally in the U.S. District Court in Harrisburg.

The lawsuit was transferred to the District Court in Johnstown and was eventually dismissed by U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson upon recommendation by U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Reed Eddy of Pittsburgh.

Thus began a legal odyssey that involved four amendments to the initial lawsuit and the issuance last week of a precedential opinion written by the chief judge of the 3rd Circuit, D. Brooks Smith, vacating the dismissal of the medical defendants and the corrections defendants, and sending the case back to the district judge for further action.

The reintstated lawsuit names 40 defendants, and, because the 3rd Circuit opinion disagreed with rulings from other Circuit Courts involving the issues, could end up in the United States Supreme Court.

Judges Michael Chagares and Joseph A. Greenaway joined Judge Smith in the opinion.

Two primary issues led to the dismissal of the lawsuit:

— Garrett’s lawsuit violated a federal civil court rule that lawsuits be “short” and the language “plain.”

— Garrett had never completed the administrative grievance process

as required under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which the defense contends weighs in favor of dismissal.

Eddy, in the recommendation adopted by Judge Gibson, stated Garrett’s fourth amended legal complaint was neither short nor plain.

She commented Garrett’s “factual legal allegations are, to a substantial extent, incomprehensible. There is still virtually no detail as to who did what and when.”

The 3rd Circuit in its 49-page opinion pointed out Garrett was not able to complete the prison grievance process because he was paroled on May 15, 2015, prior to filing his third amended complaint. The grievance procedure was no longer available to him.

The defense argued that the grievance procedure needed to be completed prior to the filing of initial lawsuit which was in 2014, but the 3rd Circuit opinion ruled that Garrett’s amended complaints, filed while on parole, corrected whatever flaw may have existed concerning the grievance process.

When it came to the Garrett’s alleged “incomprehensible” legal complaint, the opinion noted that Garrett trimmed his complaint by 20 pages and listed many instances, including the names of officers, to support his claims.

For instance, Garrett related an incident in which officers barred another inmate from helping him to walk, which caused him to collapse and strike the floor hard.

The officer, it is alleged, told Garrett to “crawl like a dog.”

Another instance involved Garrett’s complaint he could not stand due to back pain. It took 75 minutes for the officers to respond with a wheelchair, the complaint stated.

A third incident cited in the opinion involved the fall Garrett took in the shower.

The Department of Corrections responded to these incidents, contending the officers, in barring any assist to Garrett were following doctor’s orders, and that the fall Garrett took in the shower was not a constitutional violation.

The response demonstrated Garrett’s complaints were clear enough for the defendants to respond to them, according to the 3rd Circuit opinion.

The opinion stated, “While the complaint (Garrett’s lawsuit) is far from perfect, we cannot agree with the Magistrate Judge’s assessment, adopted by the District Court, that (Garrett’s) factual and legal allegations are, to a substantial extent, incomprehensible and that the fourth amended complaint contains virtually no detail as to who did what and when.”

The opinion continued by stating, “We simply cannot conclude that the District Court’s sweeping dismissal of all the claims in (Garrett’s lawsuit) was a proper exercise of discretion.”

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