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Seventh Circuit Excuses Exhaustion Requirement for Spanish-Speaking Prisoner

by Derek Gilna

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed the dismissal of an Illinois state prisoner’s 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit for failure to exhaust administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), based on the fact that as a Spanish-speaker he did not understand the grievance procedure.

Darwin Ramirez alleged that he was unable to file complaints at the Western Illinois Correctional Center, and in its October 9, 2018 opinion the Seventh Circuit agreed that prison officials did not give him an opportunity to file his grievances; therefore, his failure to exhaust was excused. 

According to the appellate ruling, “In 2011, Ramirez’s cellmate threatened him with a shank. Ramirez tried to tell a correctional officer about the incident, but the language barrier prevented him from describing what had occurred. As a result, the officer directed Ramirez to return to his cell. When Ramirez refused to do so, he was placed in segregation.” 

Ramirez complained that prison staff failed to take his cellmate’s threat and other threats against him seriously, and that he was unable to communicate with prison medical staff about his health issues due to his lack of English fluency.

Although the Court of Appeals recognized that most prisons have a grievance policy and prisoners are required to comply with its requirements under the PLRA, they also have a due process right to understand the process regardless of their lack of ability to communicate in English. The prison had blocked Ramirez from using the services of a fellow, bilingual prisoner to assist him in communicating.

Those circumstances excused the exhaustion of administrative remedies, the appellate court found. “Ramirez’s language barrier was not a secret to the prison. The prison officials knew – and recorded their awareness – of his inability to understand spoken or written English. On this record, we cannot conclude that remedies were available to him,” the Seventh Circuit wrote.

“Because no administrator or officer of Western Illinois ever informed Ramirez of its grievance process in a way that he might reasonably understand,” the Court of Appeals concluded, “that process was unavailable to him and he was excused from the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement.” The Court reversed the dismissal of the complaint and remanded the case, where it remains pending. See: Ramirez v. Young, 906 F.3d 530 (7th Cir. 2018). 

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Related legal case

Ramirez v. Young