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Ninth Circuit Holds New Claims Need Only be Exhausted Prior to Filing Amended Complaint

The Ninth Circuit has held that a § 1983 prisoner litigant who wants to raise new claims based on conduct that occurred after an initial complaint was filed may do so by exhausting available administrative remedies (relative to the new claims) prior to filing an amended complaint. In so doing, the appellate court rejected an interpretation that would have required the exhaustion of all claims prior to filing suit – an obvious impossibility in the case of claims that only arise later.

State prisoner Kavin Maurice Rhodes filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in 2002, alleging that prison staff at the California Correctional Institution at Tehachapi had retaliated against him for exercising his First Amendment right to file grievances. After the district court dismissed his complaint, the Ninth Circuit reversed.

In an important published opinion the appellate court detailed the elements of a First Amendment prisoner retaliation claim, clarifying, in the process, that a prisoner could satisfy the adverse-effect element of such a claim even if his protected First Amendment communications had not been totally silenced, so long as they had been chilled. See: Rhodes v. Robinson, 408 F.3d 559 (9th Cir. 2005).

On remand to the district court, Rhodes filed a second amended complaint, adding 21 new claims that alleged the defendants had perpetrated additional retaliatory acts against him in response to his initiating the lawsuit, and that he had exhausted the administrative remedies available to him with respect to those new claims.

The district court dismissed Rhodes’ new claims sua sponte, interpreting 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a) as requiring that all claims be exhausted prior to the initial filing of a § 1983 lawsuit.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit rejected the district court’s interpretation – which was the same as the argument advanced by the defendants – as being inconsistent with the general rule of pleading that an amended complaint “completely supercedes any earlier complaint, rendering the original complaint non-existent and, thus, its filing date irrelevant.”

Additionally, the Ninth Circuit found the district court’s interpretation of the administrative remedy exhaustion requirement to be incompatible with the language and purpose of Fed.R.Civ.P. Rule 15(d), which expressly permits a supplemental pleading to be filed based on facts that occur after the filing of the original complaint. See: Rhodes v. Robinson, 621 F.3d 1002 (9th Cir. 2010).

Following remand, on March 10, 2011 the district court entered an order allowing Rhodes to file his amended complaint. “Although the action is over nine years old and has gone to trial on twelve causes of action, the Ninth Circuit’s remand on Causes of Action Thirteen through Thirty-three essentially starts the procedural process anew,” the court wrote. The case remains pending. See: Rhodes v. Robinson, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 1:02-cv-05018 LJO DLB PC.

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Rhodes v. Robinson

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