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The Supreme Court Just Made Jailhouse Lawsuits a Bit Harder

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Prisoners can be a litigious bunch. Facing years of imprisonment and a dearth of engaging activities, scores of jailhouse lawyers file scores of (often pro se) claims, from civil rights suits, to writs of habeas corpus, to claims that Michael Vick stole their dogs.

But, pursuing those claims isn't easy. There are significant barriers set up to keep prisoners out of federal courts, not the least of which is the Prison Litigation Reform Act's administrative exhaustion requirement. And the Supreme Court shored up that particular barrier even more today, ruling unanimously that the Fourth Circuit's "special circumstances" exception to exhaustion was inconsistent with the PLRA.

Claims of Excessive Force

The ruling stems from the 2007 beating of Baltimore inmate Shaidon "Don Papa" Blake. A gang leader, Blake had been convicted of second-degree murder. As he was transported to solitary confinement, Blake was assaulted by the guards moving him, James Madigan and Michael Ross. While Ross held Blake against a wall, Madigan punched him in the face, over and over. Blake was cuffed the whole time.

Blake reported the abuse, which was pursued by the Internal Investigative Unit of the Maryland correctional services. After a year of investigation, the IIU found, not too surprisingly, that Madigan had used excessive force.

Blake filed a Section 1983 suit against both guards. And while a jury found Madigan liable, Ross claimed that Blake had failed to exhaust administrative remedies as required by the PLRA.

Exhausting Exhaustion Requirements

The Prison Litigation Reform Act was passed in 1996, with the goal of making it harder for prisoners to file lawsuits in federal courts. One of the primary ways it accomplishes this is through its exhaustion requirement. Under the PLRA, a prisoner must attempt to resolve their complaint through the prison's grievance system and all available administrative appeals before filing suit.

But there are no standard grievance procedures for prisons and many prisons employ convoluted processes that make exhaustion, well, exhausting, if not nearly impossible.

No Unwritten Exceptions

In Blake's case, the district court originally sided with Ross, finding that the prisoner had failed to meet the PLRA's exhaustion requirement. The Fourth Circuit reversed, explaining that the PLRA's exhaustion requirement "is not absolute" and may be circumvented under "special circumstances," such as when an inmate reasonably believes he has exhausted his remedies.

The Supreme Court rejected that "freewheeling approach to exhaustion" today. In a majority opinion written by Justice Kagan, the Court explained that "the PLRA's text suggests no limits on an inmate's obligation to exhaust -- irrespective of any 'special circumstance.'" So long as an administrative option is available, it must be pursued.

"Courts may not engraft an unwritten 'special circumstances' exception onto the PLRA's exhaustion requirement," the Court concluded. Justice Kagan's opinion was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Alito and Sotomayor. Justices Breyer and Thomas concurred in part.

A Warning to Prisons

After today's opinion, what is to stop prisons from establishing Kafkaesque, unending, and unnavigable grievance procedures? Thankfully, the Court included language warning that procedures which are not legitimate are not "capable of use"  and are thus not "available" under the PLRA's exhaustion requirement.

Where administrative procedure operates "as a simple dead end -- with officers unable or consistently unwilling to provide any relief," such procedure is not "capable of use" and therefore need not be exhausted. Similarly, an administrative scheme that "might be so opaque that it becomes, practically speaking, incapable of use," where "no ordinary prisoner can discern or navigate it," may not require exhaustion.

What does that mean for Blake? No one knows. It's unclear whether Blake had any administrative alternatives available to him or if they were just "dead ends," like those described by the Court. That will have to be determined on remand.

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