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Incapacitation Good Cause for Untimely Exhaustion Under PLRA

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held that physical incapacitation constitutes good cause for failure to exhaust administrative remedies within the time frame set by prison officials. As such remedies are not “available” within the meaning of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) when a prisoner is physically unable to pursue them, the filing of a grievance when the prisoner can do so meets the PLRA’s requirements.

The Seventh Circuit issued its decision in the appeal of Illinois prisoner Joseph R. Hurst, whose civil rights complaint alleged that prison medical staff had been deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs. Hurst claimed that staff failed to promptly treat him after he suffered a stroke, violating his Eighth Amendment rights.

Under Illinois law a prisoner must file a grievance within 60 days of the event giving rise to the complaint. Hurst did not file a grievance until eight-and-a-half months after his stroke. He appealed the denial of his grievance, arguing that his untimely filing was the result of being “almost totally incapacitated” by the stroke “until just recently.” That, Hurst argued, constituted “good cause” to excuse his late filing. Prison officials disagreed and denied his appeal.

In response to Hurst’s subsequent lawsuit, prison officials moved for summary judgment for his failure to exhaust administrative remedies as required by the PLRA. The district court granted the motion. The court found that Hurst had failed to present evidence of his incapacitation either to prison authorities or in support of his lawsuit.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit separated the two issues. As to the first, the appellate court noted that the “Illinois Administrative Code does not require a prisoner to attach evidence to a claim of good cause, any more than the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require a plaintiff to attach evidence to his complaint.” Prison officials could have required Hurst to demonstrate good cause, but they did not do so when they denied his appeal on the grounds that there was “no justification to justify an untimely filing.”

The defendant prison officials, in their brief, refused to acknowledge that physical incapacitation is good cause for an untimely grievance. “The implication is that even if the plaintiff had been in a coma for 60 days after the allegedly willful failure to treat his stroke promptly, he would have forfeited his administrative remedies, thus blocking his access to the federal courts.”

The Seventh Circuit agreed with other courts that had found administrative remedies are not available to a prisoner who is physically unable to pursue them. Still, the Court of Appeals ruled against Hurst. The Court emphasized that it was affirming the lower court not because Hurst had failed to present evidence to prison officials to prove his incapacitation, but because he did not present such evidence to the district court in response to the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

Hurst filed a petition for writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court on May 10, 2011, which is pending. See: Hurst v. Hantke, 634 F.3d 409 (7th Cir. 2011), rehearing denied.

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Related legal case

Hurst v. Hantke