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INMATES DO NOT ALWAYS LIE
We try to catch everything, but we’re only human. We missed this fascinating decision from last November, but alert reader William brought it to our attention.
An Indiana state inmate sued prison officials for withholding medical treatment. He supported his complaint with his own declaration that he had tried to exhaust administrative remedies by filing the proper form, but only the staff could hand out the form, and he was refused one.
As is fairly typical in cases like these, the prison officials moved for summary judgment. They provided as their only evidence for summary judgment a declaration containing the general statement that, “as an inmate incarcerated with the Indiana DOC, the Offender Grievance Process has been available to Warren.”
The district court denied summary judgment to the prison officials, holding that “when considered alongside Mr. Warren’s specific evidence that his attempt to obtain a grievance appeal form in the customary manner was unsuccessful, the defendants’ single generalized statement regarding availability is insufficient to even place in dispute Mr. Warren’s evidence that he could not obtain a grievance appeal form, let alone for the defendants to carry their burden on this issue.”
But it was what followed that made the decision unusual. The district judge blasted the prison officials for making the “legally frivolous yet often presented” argument that the court should disregard Mark’s sworn declaration because it is self-serving. The prison officials complained that “if all an inmate has to do to excuse his failure to complete the grievance process is submit his own testimony in response to a motion for summary judgment stating he now remembers putting an alleged grievance appeal in a counselor’s mailbox and ‘they must have lost it,’ prison administrators will have difficulty administering an effective grievance process.”
Well, the district court essentially said, tough luck. The 7th Circuit has held repeatedly that so-called ‘self-serving’ sworn testimony is competent evidence. “Everything a litigant says in support of a claim is self-serving” the district court observed, “whether the statement comes in a complaint, an affidavit, a deposition, or a trial. Yet self-serving statements are not necessarily false; they may be put to the test before being accepted, but they cannot be ignored… It is dismaying to see plausible allegations labeled “self-serving” and then swept aside…”
The district court lamented that “the defendants’ approach is part of a troubling pattern the Court has noticed in prisoner civil rights cases where the affirmative defense of exhaustion is raised: the defendants move for summary judgment, they ignore the plaintiff’s admissible sworn testimony in response that the administrative remedy process was not available to him, and without confronting this evidence in their reply, the defendants ask the Court to also ignore the evidence and enter summary judgment in their favor. Such an approach leads to only two possibilities: the Court either has to explain, again, that the defendants’ argument lacks any basis in the law or, worse still, the Court—in its efforts to resolve one of the several hundreds of prisoner civil rights cases pending before it at any one time—mistakenly accepts the defendants’ invitation to commit legal error.”
Of course, what the prison officials were really saying to the judge is that the plaintiff is nothing more than an inmate, so he can be ignored. All inmates lie, so nothing the plaintiff said – even if it is corroborated by a busload of nuns – can possibly be true.
One district court has finally refused to wink back.
Warren v. Corizon, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 186983 (S.D.Ind., Nov. 13, 2017)
– Thomas L. Root