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PLRA Requires Grievance Exhaustion for ADA/RA Claims

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has joined the Sixth Circuit in holding that the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) requires exhaustion of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act (RA) claims.

Nevada prisoner Roy O’Guinn had a history of mental illness, brain damage and organic personality disorder, requiring medical treatment. On November 9, 2004, he filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), alleging prison officials had violated the ADA and RA by failing to adequately treat his mental disability.

On January 4, 2005, O’Guinn sued the Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) and several individual prison officials in federal court, alleging ADA and RA violations. He attached his DOJ complaint to the suit. He acknowledged that he had not exhausted NDOC grievance procedures because “Grievance [is] not applicable to ADA/Rehab Act and is not required under these acts.”

The district court characterized O’Guinn’s lawsuit as a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and dismissed the action for failure to exhaust administrative remedies as required by the PLRA. Following an evidentiary hearing the court determined that O’Guinn had “failed to file NDOC grievances related to mental health treatment.”

The Ninth Circuit held that the district court mischaracterized O’Guinn’s suit as a § 1983 action, finding that the complaint clearly pleaded ADA and RA statutory violations. Even so, the appellate court concluded that the plain language of 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a) requires exhaustion of ADA and RA claims because the ADA and RA are federal laws, noting that the Sixth Circuit had reached the same conclusion in Jones v. Smith, 266 F.3d 399, 400 (6th Cir. 2001).

The Ninth Circuit agreed with the district court that O’Guinn’s failure to file grievances related to the claims raised in his lawsuit amounted to a failure to exhaust his ADA and RA claims. It also rejected O’Guinn’s contention that the DOJ complaint satisfied exhaustion requirements under § 1997e(a). As the Supreme Court has made clear, the PLRA requires exhaustion of the prison’s internal grievance process. The DOJ complaint was an external remedy.

The appellate court also rejected O’Guinn’s argument that “special circumstances” excused his non-exhaustion, finding that he waived that argument by failing to assert it in the district court. However, given O’Guinn’s subsequent exhaustion of the NDOC’s grievance process, the Court of Appeals noted “he need only file a new suit to have his case heard in a federal forum.” See: O’Guinn v. Lovelock Correctional Center, 502 F.3d 1056 (9th Cir. 2007).

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Related legal case

O’Guinn v. Lovelock Correctional Center