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Released Prisoners Need Not Exhaust Grievance Remedies Before Filing Suit

The Ninth Circuit has held that former prisoners need not exhaust administrative remedies before filing suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to challenge the conditions under which they were once confined. In so ruling, the Ninth Circuit joins the Second, Third, Seventh, Eighth and Tenth Circuits; each has held that the exhaustion requirement imposed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) applies only to individuals who are “prisoners” (as defined by 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(h)) at the time they file their civil actions.

In August 2004, more than a year after his release from jail, Ruben Talamantes filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights had been violated while he had been in the custody of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Although the Sheriff’s Department maintained an administrative appeals process for handling complaints by incarcerated as well as released prisoners, Talamantes did not avail himself of either grievance procedure.

The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that Talamantes had failed to exhaust administrative remedies. The district court held that the PLRA mandated exhaustion before filing an action relating to conditions of confinement, even if the complainant, at the time of filing suit, was no longer incarcerated; accordingly, it granted the motion to dismiss.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit found that the language of the relevant statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), was plain and unambiguous, and that the exhaustion requirement therefore applied only to “prisoners.” Since a “prisoner” is defined under 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(h) as anyone “incarcerated or detained in any facility who is accused of, convicted of, sentenced for, or adjudicated delinquent for, violations of criminal law or the terms and conditions of parole, probation, pretrial release, or diversionary program,” a person (such as Talamantes) not so “incarcerated or detained” at the time the action is filed is not a “prisoner” subject to PLRA’ s exhaustion requirement. The Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded the case to the district court. See: Talamantes v. Levya, 575 F.3d 1021 (9th Cir. 2009).

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Related legal case

Talamantes v. Levya