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PLRA Does Not Require Exhaustion When Prison Officials Cannot Afford Any Relief "Whatsoever," D.C. Circuit Decides

PLRA Does Not Require Exhaustion When Prison Officials Cannot Afford Any Relief "Whatsoever," D.C. Circuit Decides

By Brandon Sample

The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) does not require exhaustion of administrative remedies when prison officials cannot afford "any relief or take any action whatsoever in response to [a] complaint," the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit decided December 30, 2008.

The court's decision comes in response to an appeal by Russell Kaemmerling, a federal prisoner, who brought suit against the Director of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) over the validity of the DNA Backlog Elimination Act of 2000 (DNA Act). The DNA Act requires the BOP to collect DNA from all federal prisoners convicted of a felony prior to their release. Kaemmerling alleged that the DNA Act conflicted with his rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Kaemmerling, a self-described "Evangelican Christian," alleged that the collection and retention of his DNA through any means was "tantamount to laying the foundation for the rise of the anti-Christ." The district court dismissed Kaemmerling's suit for failure to exhaust his administrative remedies. Kaemmerling appealed.

Although "exhaustion is the 'general rule'" for prisoner cases, Kaemmerling's case presented one of the "rare" cases "in which there is no administrative process to exhaust because the BOP lacks authority to provide ... any relief or take any action whatsoever in response to his complaint challenging enforcement of the DNA Act," the D.C. Circuit held. The PLRA only requires exhaustion of "available" administrative remedies, that is, "those prison grievance procedures that provide 'the possibility of some relief for the action complained of,'" the court wrote. Here, the BOP could not afford Kaemmerling any relief for his complaint. "The BOP has no discretion not to collect Kaemmerling's DNA," the court wrote.

The court was careful to make clear, however, that exhaustion remains the rule for most prison cases. Kaemmerling's case was not one where the prisoner alleged that the grievance process could not grant the "exact type of relief" sought or where a prisoner believes pursuing the grievance process would be futile, the court noted. In such cases, some form of responsive action remains available. Rather, in Kaemmerling's case, the BOP could "offer no possible relief."

Turning to the merits of Kaemmerling's claims, the court rejected Kaemmerling's RFRA challenge to the DNA Act. Further, the court joined several other circuits in concluding that the Act does not violate Equal Protection, the Fifth Amendment's protections against self-incrimination, or the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures.

The judgment of the district court dismissing Kaemmerling's suit was accordingly affirmed. See: Kaemmerling v. Lappin, 553 F.3d 669 (D.C. Cir. 2008).

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Related legal case

Kaemmerling v. Lappin