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Sixth Circuit Now Permits § 1983 Complaint to Proceed Even if Prisoner Did Not Initially Plead Exhaustion Below

by John E. Dannenberg

The Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has vacated its precedent which held that a prisoner had an affirmative burden to plead exhaustion of administrative remedies in a § 1983 complaint. Following the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling contra in Jones v. Bock, 127 S.Ct. 910 (2007) [see: PLN, May 2007, p.36], the Sixth Circuit granted a prisoner?s Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b)(1) motion to abate the dismissal of his complaint below for having failed to affirmatively plead exhaustion.

Michigan prisoner Jeremy Okoro had sued prison authorities in pro per alleging violation of his constitutional rights related to a prison policy declaring court documents to be contraband and requiring their immediate destruction. His case was dismissed without prejudice in the U.S. District Court (E.D. Mich.) for his failure to expressly plead exhaustion of administrative remedies. His Rule 60(b)(1) motion to correct this error of law was denied and he appealed.

In the meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Jones, which expressly held that failure to plead exhaustion is not grounds for dismissal, but must instead result in a remand. Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded, noting that while prison officials may yet proffer a failure-to-exhaust defense, Okoro must be permitted to proceed on any properly exhausted claims rather than simply being procedurally tossed out of court.

Okoro?s suit is still pending in the District Court, where he has filed a declaration stating that prison officials had refused to provide him with administrative remedy (grievances) forms. See: Okoro v. Hemingway, 481 F.3d 873 (6th Cir. 2007).

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Related legal case

Okoro v. Hemingway