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Ninth Circuit Rules PLRA Requires Exhaustion Even if Prison Grievance Process Cannot Provide Monetary Relief

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of a California prisoner’s Eighth Amendment damages claim due to his failure to exhaust administrative remedies.
In June 2003, Bruce Alan Morton was assaulted in the prison yard at Ironwood State Prison. He alleged that he was assaulted because prisoners somehow discovered that he had been convicted of murdering his 5-year-old step-daughter.

A month after being attacked, Morton was denied visitation privileges with minors based on a regulation that imposed visiting restrictions on prisoners convicted of certain offenses involving minors. He filed an administrative grievance regarding the application of that regulation to him. After the grievance was denied at all levels of review, Morton filed suit in federal district court, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that prison officials’ deliberate indifference contributed to the June 2003 assault. He also challenged the visiting restrictions and alleged a number of state-law causes of action.

The district court dismissed the deliberate indifference claim for failure to exhaust administrative remedies as required under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). The court also granted summary judgment to the defendants as to Morton’s claim regarding the denial of visiting privileges, finding the claim lacked a cognizable constitutional basis.

On appeal, Morton challenged only the dismissal of his deliberate indifference claim. He argued, initially, that he was not required to exhaust administrative remedies because California’s grievance procedure does not provide for relief in the form of monetary damages. That argument, the Court noted, while consistent with prior circuit case law, had been foreclosed by a Supreme Court ruling, Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731 (2001) (“The question is whether an inmate seeking only money damages must complete a prison administrative process that could provide some sort of relief on the complaint stated, but no money. We hold that he must.”) [PLN, Aug. 2001, p.20].

Morton subsequently argued that he had in fact exhausted the deliberate indifference claim when he filed his grievance regarding the denial of visitation privileges with minors. Noting that his visitation-related grievance never even mentioned the fact that he had been assaulted, the Ninth Circuit found the grievance did not give prison officials notice that Morton would try to hold them liable for the assault.

The district court’s dismissal of his lawsuit was therefore affirmed. See: Morton v. Hall, 599 F.3d 942 (9th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Morton v. Hall