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U.S. Supreme Court: Prisoners Must Exhaust “Available” Administrative Remedies

Shaidon Blake, a Maryland prisoner, claimed that he was punched in the face and had his head slammed into a wall by guard James Madigan while handcuffed during a move to a segregation cell – an assault that he reported to the prison system’s Internal Investigative Unit (IIU). The IIU conducted a review of the June 2007 incident and issued a report condemning Madigan’s actions while making no findings as to another guard, Michael Ross, who had allegedly facilitated Madigan’s use of excessive force. Meanwhile, Blake filed a lawsuit in federal court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of his civil rights.

Following trial, Madigan was found liable and the jury awarded $50,000 in damages. Ross, however, raised an affirmative defense arguing that Blake had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). Blake maintained that the IIU investigation was a substitute for the grievance procedure, but the district court disagreed and dismissed his complaint. The Fourth Circuit reversed in a split decision, holding that “special circumstances” could excuse a failure to exhaust administrative remedies where a prisoner reasonably believed that he had in fact exhausted his remedies, even if that belief was mistaken.

According to the PLRA, “No action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 ... until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.” The Supreme Court held this language was “mandatory,” but noted that applicable administrative remedies must in fact be “available.” The Court wrote, “We are not free to rewrite the statutory text,” finding that Congress had decided to bar prisoners “‘from bringing suit in federal court until they have exhausted their administrative remedies.’”

The Supreme Court added that although it could not excuse Blake’s failure to exhaust his administrative remedies, that finding “does not end this case – because the PLRA contains its own, textual exception to mandatory exhaustion.” Specifically, the “exhaustion requirement hinges on the ‘availab[ility]’ of administrative remedies: An inmate, that is, must exhaust available remedies, but need not exhaust unavailable ones.” Prisoners are only required “to exhaust those, but only those, grievance procedures that are ‘capable of use’ to obtain ‘some relief for the action complained of,’” the Court explained, citing Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731 (2001) [PLN, Aug. 2001, p.20].

The Supreme Court described three circumstances where administrative remedies may not be available, including when prison officials have the authority to act on grievances but decline to do so, resulting in a “dead end” process with “officers unable or consistently unwilling to provide any relief to aggrieved inmates”; when remedies are “so opaque” or confusing that they are, “practically speaking, incapable of use”; and when prison officials “thwart inmates from taking advantage of a grievance process through machination, misrepresentation, or intimidation.”

With respect to the availability of administrative remedies, Blake had argued that “Maryland wardens routinely dismiss ... grievances as procedurally improper when parallel IIU investigations are pending,” a position supported by Maryland’s attorney general in other cases with similar facts. Consequently, the Supreme Court held “the court below must consider ... whether the remedies [Blake] failed to exhaust were ‘available’” to him.

The Court’s June 6, 2016 decision vacated the judgment of the Fourth Circuit and remanded the case for further proceedings. See: Ross v. Blake, U.S. Supreme Court, Case No. 15-339. 

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