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Fourth Circuit Finds Internal Investigation Exception to PLRA’s Exhaustion Requirement

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held a Maryland prisoner “reasonably believed that he had sufficiently exhausted [administrative] remedies by complying with an internal investigation” conducted by prison officials on his claims.

Before the court was the appeal of prisoner Shaidon Blake, challenging a Maryland federal district court’s grant of summary judgement to Lt. Michael Ross. The lower court found Blake failed to exhaust administrative remedies prior to filing his civil rights complaint.

The case stemmed from a June 21, 2007, incident at the Maryland Reception Diagnostic and Classification Center. Lieutenants Ross and James Madigan approached Blake’s cell and ordered him to gather his possessions to be removed to another cell block. Madigan responded to Blake’s query about the move by calling him a “bad ass” and a “tough guy” who was trying to take over the housing unit.

During an escort while Blake was handcuffed behind his back, Ross gained an impression that pre-existing tension existed between Blake and Madigan. The facts showed that Madigan pushed Blake twice during the escort, and he ultimately punched Blake in the face five times.  Blake suffered nerve damage as a result of the incident. He reported the incident the same day to senior guards, who initiated an internal investigation.

A year-long investigation ensued, resulting in a finding Madigan used excessive force upon Blake by striking him in the face; he was relieved of his duties as a guard. Blake prevailed in his claim against Madigan at trial.

On appeal, the exhaustion issue was raised in a motion brought by Ross, which Madigan did not join. The Fourth Circuit found “exhaustion is not absolute” and administrative law contains “well–established exceptions to exhaustion.” The court adopted the Second Circuit’s two–prong inquiry for such exceptions.

First, the inquiry is whether “the prisoner was justified in believing that his complaints in the disciplinary appeal procedurally exhausted his administrative remedies because the prison’s remedial system was confusing” and second “whether the prisoner’s submissions in the disciplinary appeals process exhausted his remedies in a substantive sense by affording corrections officials time and opportunity to address complaints internally.”

The Fourth Circuit found prison officials had “notice of Blake’s complaint, as well as an opportunity to develop an extensive record to address the issue internally. It further found the regulations are ambiguous as to if an internal investigation and prisoner grievance could proceed concurrently, making it reasonable for Blake to believe he had exhausted his administrative remedies.

The district court erred in granting Ross summary judgment on the exhaustion defense and its order was vacated. See: Blake v. Ross, 787 F.3d 693 (4th Cir. 2015).

Note: This ruling was vacated and remanded by the U.S. Supreme Court in Ross v. Blake, 136 S. Ct. 1850 (2016).

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