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Judge, Not Jury, Must Resolve Questions about Administrative Exhaustion

Factual disputes surrounding whether a prisoner properly exhausted administrative remedies under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) prior to filing suit must be resolved by the court, not a jury, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held on July 26, 2011. In so ruling, the Second Circuit aligned itself with similar decisions from the Third, Fifth, Seventh, Ninth and Eleventh Circuits.

Rafael Messa sued numerous New York Department of Correctional Services (NYDOCS) employees after he was injured during an altercation with guards. Messa did not file any grievances about the incident before filing his lawsuit. Instead, he argued that he was not required to exhaust because he had been threatened with further violence by guards if he complained about the incident. Additionally, he alleged that NYDOCS staff refused to assist him in preparing his grievances. Messa contended that he needed help because he spoke only Spanish and was illiterate.

Messa’s case was set for trial after the district court denied summary judgment to the defendants. However, several days prior to trial, the court decided sua sponte to conduct a hearing on the exhaustion issue. After considering testimony from Messa and NYDOCS officials, the district court found that Messa’s excuses for failing to exhaust were contrary to the evidence. Accordingly, the court dismissed Messa’s suit due to non-exhaustion.
On appeal, Messa argued that the district court violated his Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial by refusing to submit the exhaustion issue to a jury. The Second Circuit disagreed.

While the Seventh Amendment guarantees the right to a jury trial “[i]n suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars,” this right does not apply to all factual disputes that may arise in a case, the appellate court held.

Instead, the Seventh Amendment’s guarantee of a jury trial applies only to “the ultimate determination of issues of fact by the jury.” Exhaustion of administrative remedies, according to the Court of Appeals, does not go to the ultimate issue of fact in a case, but rather is “a matter of judicial administration” unrelated to “the merits of the underlying dispute.” As such, the Seventh Amendment’s jury trial guarantee does not extend to the resolution of factual matters related to exhaustion.

This conclusion is reinforced by the text and purpose of the PLRA, the Second Circuit explained, as exhaustion of administrative remedies “is a condition that must be satisfied before the court can act on an inmate plaintiff’s action.” The judgment of the district court was therefore affirmed. See: Messa v. Goord, 652 F.3d 305 (2nd Cir. 2011).

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Related legal case

Messa v. Goord