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Eighth Circuit: Exhaustion is Not a Pleading Requirement in FOIA Cases

The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed the dismissal of a former federal prisoner’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) suit, holding that he was not required to plead exhaustion in his complaint.

Darnell Wesly Moon filed a lawsuit against the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), challenging the denial of his FOIA request under 5 U.S.C. § 552. He had requested copies “of all administrative remedies” that he submitted to BOP officials while held in a Communications Management Unit at USP Marion. The district court dismissed his suit before serving the defendant because Moon did not plead exhaustion of administrative remedies in his initial complaint.

Moon appealed and the Eighth Circuit reversed in a terse ruling on April 28, 2016. Citing Elnashar v. United States Dep’t of Justice, 446 F.3d 792 (8th Cir. 2006), the Court of Appeals agreed “that a litigant must exhaust administrative remedies before bringing a FOIA action in federal court.” Nevertheless, given “that FOIA is silent as to whether exhaustion is a pleading requirement or an affirmative defense,” the appellate court held “the argument of non-exhaustion is an affirmative defense rather than a pleading requirement.” Accordingly, “Moon was not required to plead exhaustion in his complaint.”

Rather, like exhaustion of administrative remedies under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), it was the defendant’s burden to plead and prove the affirmative defense of non-exhaustion. See: Moon v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 642 Fed. Appx. 651 (8th Cir. 2016). 

Related legal case

Moon v. Federal Bureau of Prisons