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PLRA’s Administrative Remedies Requirement Tolls Limitations Time but Not Accrual Time

by David Reutter

In February 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Prison Litigation Reform Act’s administrative exhaustion requirement justifies the tolling of the statute of limitations, but not the creation of a new accrual time.

Arizona prisoner Angel Soto filed suit over an April 2010 incident in which he alleged guards beat him, stomped on him and kicked him in the head while he was on a mental health watch. He also accused guards of using excessive force by strapping him to a gurney and spraying him with Mace, and of sexually assaulting him by spraying Mace into his rectum.

After filing a grievance, Soto was sent to the Special Services Unit to document his injuries. Once there, he was told his complaint would be investigated and he could complete the grievance process once the investigation was over. It was not until April 2014 that the Criminal Investigation Unit finished its review, finding his sexual assault claim unfounded due to insufficient evidence.

Soto had restarted the grievance process several months earlier, and exhausted his administrative remedies on May 2, 2014. He then filed his civil rights action. The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding Soto’s claims accrued while he awaited the investigation’s completion and he was not entitled to equitable tolling.

On appeal, Soto argued that his claims did not accrue until after he exhausted his administrative remedies in 2014, or in the alternative that he was entitled to equitable tolling while completing the grievance process.

The Ninth Circuit held long-standing precedent established that a claim accrues “when the plaintiff has ‘a complete and present cause of action’ – that is, when ‘the plaintiff can file and obtain relief.’”

While the PLRA’s “exhaustion requirement justifies tolling the statute of limitations ... it does not justify creating a new accrual rule. The potential unfairness of limitations running during exhaustion is better addressed by equitable tolling.”

However, based on the facts in this case, the Court of Appeals agreed with the district court that Soto was not entitled to tolling because he presented no “declaration, affidavit, authenticated document, or other competent evidence” that he was required to wait for the Criminal Investigation Unit to finish its review or that he had done anything to follow up on his sexual assault claim, including asking about the status of the investigation.

The appellate court held Soto was entitled to equitable tolling while he was actively pursuing his administrative remedies, but tolling did not apply when he had abandoned the grievance process for four years while awaiting the conclusion of the investigation. The Ninth Circuit also noted that he had restarted the grievance process before the end of the investigation – indicating that he could have done so much sooner.

Finding that Soto’s claims were barred by the statute of limitations, the district court’s summary judgment order was affirmed. See: Soto v. Unknown Sweetman, 882 F.3d 865 (9th Cir., 2018), rehearing denied, rehearing en banc denied. 


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Related legal case

Soto v. Unknown Sweetman