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Filing Date of Operative Complaint Dictates if PLRA Exhaustion Applies

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held on August 31, 2017 that “a plaintiff who was in custody at the time he initiated his suit but was free when he filed his amended operative complaint is not a ‘prisoner’ subject to a PLRA [Prison Litigation Reform Act] exhaustion defense.”

In May 2010, Charles David Jackson was sent to California’s San Quentin State Prison to serve a sentence for second-degree burglary. He had suffered from mental illness since age four, having been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, panic disorder, social phobia and anti-social personality disorder.

He began meeting with San Quentin doctors in June 2010 and was told he did not qualify for the prison’s mental health program. Dr. K. Frieha told Jackson he could not “dictate the program and would not be provided treatment.”

Jackson requested that Dr. P. Burton place him in solitary confinement to treat his mental health issues; after the request was denied, Jackson threatened violence unless he was placed in solitary. That threat did the trick and he was put in segregation, where he remained until November 5, 2011.

During that period, Jackson’s physical and mental health “deteriorated significantly.” He “would often miss numerous medical appointments and classification hearings ... because he could not leave his cell [due] to severe social phobia, panic attacks, and depression.” He also lost good time credits due to his time in solitary confinement.

Jackson filed an untimely administrative grievance and appeal regarding the denial of treatment. After he was released from prison and while his first amended complaint in federal district court was pending, his final grievance was closed as moot. He informed the court of his release and was allowed to file another amended complaint, which was subsequently dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

The Ninth Circuit said the only question on appeal was whether the administrative exhaustion requirement applied to Jackson. “The answer depends on whether the court should look to the initiation of the suit (when Jackson was a prisoner, and had not exhausted his remedies), or to Jackson’s operative third amended complaint (filed when Jackson was not a prisoner, and the exhaustion requirement did not apply).”

The appellate court wrote, “In PLRA cases, amended pleadings may supersede earlier pleadings.” It added that Jackson’s last amended complaint, “filed when he was no longer a prisoner, obviates an exhaustion defense.” In holding that exhaustion requirements “apply based on when a plaintiff files the operative complaint in accordance with Federal Rules of Civil Procedure,” the Court of Appeals noted that “once a prisoner is no longer in custody, there is nothing to gain by forcing the prisoner through the administrative [grievance] process.”

One appellate judge issued a separate opinion that concurred with the judgment, but argued that the district court “improperly determined Jackson had not exhausted his claims, not because the PLRA was inapplicable to his post-release third amended complaint, but because Jackson’s failure to exhaust is excusable under § 1997e(a).”

The district court’s order granting summary judgment to the defendants was reversed and the case remains pending on remand. See: Jackson v. Fong, 870 F.3d 928 (9th Cir. 2017).


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Related legal case

Jackson v. Fong