ATLANTA (CN) — An attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union asked the 11th Circuit on Tuesday to reinstate a mentally and physically disabled Georgia inmate’s lawsuit seeking better medical care.
The ACLU filed an appellate brief in January on behalf of Baldwin State Prison inmate Jeffery Geter – who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, bipolar disorder and other conditions – arguing that a federal judge wrongfully dismissed the complaint Geter filed after the prison rejected his grievance due to a procedural error.
Unable to fill out the prison grievance form himself, Geter sought the help of a staff member. The worker failed to follow a policy requiring that the grievance focus on a single issue, instead including 17 issues on the form. The grievance was rejected by the prison warden as a result.
In its appeal brief, the ACLU argued the district court’s order dismissing Geter’s case raises questions “regarding the availability of administrative remedies under the Prison Litigation Reform Act to prisoners with serious mental illness and/or cognitive disabilities.”
The Prison Litigation Reform Act requires prisoners to exhaust administrative remedies before taking their grievance to court, but the ACLU argues that those remedies may not be accessible for prisoners with serious mental illness or intellectual disabilities.
“This case is about whether Geter should be barred from court because his mental illness and intellectual disabilities made administrative remedies unavailable to him,” attorney Jennifer Wedekind of the ACLU National Prison Project argued Tuesday morning before a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit.
Wedekind noted that Geter, who has an eighth-grade education and is designated a mental health level III patient by the Georgia Department of Corrections, repeatedly included information about his disabilities in his grievance and in his October 2016 pro se complaint seeking damages and equitable relief for the rejection of his grievance.
According to GDC policy, mental health level III inmates have a “tenuous mental status,” may be easily overwhelmed by everyday pressures and demands, and may experience poor judgment, delusional thinking, and hallucinations.
The district court dismissed Geter’s complaint in October 2018, finding that he failed to properly exhaust his administrative remedies.
“He could not understand the grievance procedure as a whole,” Wedekind told the panel Tuesday morning, adding that Geter tried to exhaust his administrative remedies before bringing his pro se complaint but was unable to access the grievance process due to his disabilities.
“It doesn’t immediately follow night from day that he was unable to avail himself of the procedures simply due to his bipolar mental illness and disorders,” said U.S. Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus, a Bill Clinton appointee.
Georgia Assistant Attorney General Ronald Stay urged the panel to uphold the district court’s dismissal and pointed out that Geter had been able to file a grievance without assistance four years before the rejected grievance that led to the appeal.
“The mere fact that someone has a mental disability gives no indication as to what that person can and cannot do… Geter signed [the grievance] and added 15 handwritten pages to it. Clearly Geter understands the general basis of the grievance policy,” Stay said.
“Whatever disabilities Geter has, they did not make it impossible for him to access the process,” he concluded.
In rebuttal, Wedekind noted that Geter’s first grievance was also rejected.
Geter is currently serving a 40-year sentence for rape and other offenses.
Marcus was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Branch, appointed by President Donald Trump, and Senior U.S. District Judge Paul Huck, another Clinton sitting by designation from the Southern District of Florida.
The panel did not indicate when it would reach a decision in the case.