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Jury Trials Not Guaranteed to Hear PLRA Deficiency Excuses

By Robyn Hagan Cain on July 28, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Second Circuit ruled today that a prisoner who sued under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”) was not entitled to a jury trial on disputed factual issues relating to his exhaustion of administrative remedies. In other words, a court will not empanel a jury to evaluate a plaintiff’s claim that the dog ate his homework.

Plaintiff Rafael Messa, an inmate of the New York State Department of Correctional Services (“DOCS”), was injured during a prison yard fight with the defendants, a group of correctional officers, and was hospitalized in the prison infirmary. In 2003, Messa brought a pro se action against defendants and other DOCS employees, alleging excessive force and other Eighth Amendment and due process violations in connection with the fight.

The district court dismissed Messa's case because he failed to exhaust all administrative remedies under the PLRA before bringing suit. On appeal, Messa claimed that he was entitled to a jury trial on the factual disputes regarding his excuses for non-exhaustion. The Second Circuit, which had not previously addressed whether there is a right to a jury trial on factual disputes regarding an inmate's failure to exhaust PLRA administrative remedies, found that there is no such right.

Messa argued that determining whether an inmate asserts a valid excuse for non-exhaustion is a task for the jury. The court cited three reasons why it was not convinced.

First, the Seventh Amendment's guarantee of the right to "the ultimate determination of issues of fact by the jury" does not extend to the "threshold issue[s] that courts must address to determine whether litigation is being conducted in the right forum at the right time."

Second, Congress requires administrative exhaustion to encourage inmates to pursue administrative steps "that they might otherwise prefer to skip" to "provide prisons with a fair opportunity to correct their own errors," and to "reduce the quantity and improve the quality of prisoner suits."

Third, PLRA exhaustion must be satisfied before the courts can act on an inmate plaintiff's action. A statute of limitations, on the other hand, "represent[s] a pervasive legislative judgment that it is unjust to fail to put the adversary on notice to defend within a specified period of time and that 'the right to be free of stale claims in time comes to prevail over the right to prosecute them.'"

The Second Circuit joins five other appellate circuits in finding that the Seventh Amendment does not promise a jury trial on all issues that might, as a practical matter, finally dispose of a case. Instead, it guarantees the right to a jury's resolution of the merits of the ultimate dispute.

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