Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Second Circuit: Ross Abrogates “Special Circumstances” Exhaustion Exception

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the non-exhaustion dismissal of a New York prisoner’s excessive force suit. Applying Ross v. Blake, 136 S.Ct. 1850 (2016) [PLN, July 2016, p.22], the appellate court held that no administrative remedies were “available” under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) when prison officials failed to process a grievance.

During a search, New York prisoner Mark Williams asked a guard to stop reading his legal work. The guard told Williams to sit down; he did so, but continued to “admonish” her.

Two other guards grabbed Williams and dragged him to another room out of sight of video cameras and other prisoners. They then assaulted him, pushing his forehead against a wall and kicking and stomping him.

One guard, Gammone, allegedly grabbed Williams and said “this is what running your mouth gets you” as he punched him in the right eye. Williams fell to the ground and another guard, Priatno, kicked his face and head.

Williams was confined in the special housing unit (SHU) after being treated for injuries to his head, knee, eye, elbow, lower back, jaw and nose. Since the assault he has received medication for anxiety and panic attacks.

The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) employs a three-step grievance process. The Inmate Grievance Resolution Committee answers the first grievance, the facility superintendent responds to the second and the Central Office Review Committee answers the third.

A prisoner typically files a grievance with the grievance clerk. Prisoners like Williams who are confined in the SHU must give their grievances to a guard for filing.

On January 15, 2013, Williams gave an SHU guard a grievance that alleged excessive force by Gammone and Priatno. When Superintendent Ada Perez was making rounds in the SHU a week later, she told Williams she had no knowledge of his grievance but would look into it. Williams was transferred to a different prison shortly afterwards; he never received a response to his grievance.

Williams filed suit against Priatno and Gammone but the federal district court dismissed his complaint for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, concluding that he could have appealed the non-response to the grievance he attempted to file.

The Second Circuit reversed. The Court of Appeals first found that Ross abrogated its earlier decisions in Giano v. Goord, 380 F.3d 670 (2d Cir. 2004) and Hemphill v. New York, 380 F.3d 680 (2d Cir. 2004), which held that “special circumstances” may excuse exhaustion. In Ross, the Supreme Court stressed that PLRA exhaustion is mandatory, “noting that the text of the PLRA and its legislative history refute the existence of a special circumstances exception to the statute’s exhaustion requirement.”

Nevertheless, Ross held that only “available” remedies must be exhausted, and that a remedy is not available when: 1) “it operates as a simple dead end – with officers unable or consistently unwilling to provide any relief to aggrieved inmates”; 2) the “administrative scheme might be so opaque that it becomes, practically speaking, incapable of use”; and 3) “prison administrators thwart inmates from taking advantage of a grievance process through machination, misrepresentation, or intimidation.” Moreover, the Second Circuit wrote, “the three circumstances discussed in Ross do not appear to be exhaustive.”

Applying Ross, the appellate court concluded that “even if Williams technically could have appealed his grievance, ... the regulatory scheme providing for that appeal is ‘so opaque’ and ‘so confusing’” that no reasonable prisoner could use it.

Accepting as true that the SHU guard did not file Williams’ grievance, the Court of Appeals found that “the regulations give no guidance whatsoever to an inmate whose grievance was never filed.” As such, it concluded that Williams had exhausted his available administrative remedies when he gave his grievance to the guard.

“To avoid confusion going forward,” the Second Circuit recommended “that DOCCS revise its grievance procedure to instruct how to appeal grievances that were not properly filed by prison staff, and how to appeal a grievance, to which the inmate never received a response, after being transferred.” See: Williams v. Priatno, 829 F.3d 118 (2d Cir. 2016). 

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Williams v. Priatno