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Ninth Circuit Reverses Lower Court’s Dismissal of California Prisoner’s Religious Freedom Lawsuit

On July 21, 2020, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a lower court’s dismissal of a prisoner’s religious freedom suit that had been dismissed as time barred.

California prisoner C. Dwayne Gilmore brought federal suit, alleging religious freedom claims in violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The district court ultimately dismissed Gilmore’s suit as untimely because it was not filed within the applicable four-year statute of limitations and Gilmore did not state a basis for equitable tolling.

The Ninth Circuit reversed. Citing Soto v. Unknown Sweetman, 882 F3d 865 (9th Cir. 2018), the Court reiterated that exhaustion of administrative remedies under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) is a basis for tolling the statute of limitations.

The Ninth Circuit first recognized that tolling of the statute of limitations is appropriate during PLRA exhaustion in Brown v. Valoff, 422 F3d 926, 942-43 (9th Cir. 2005). There, the Court joined the Second, Third, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eleventh Circuits in holding that the applicable statute of limitations must be tolled while a prisoner actively pursues mandatory PLRA exhaustion. Soto drew a line between active exhaustion, which is tolled, and periods in which the prisoner fails to take any action, which is not tolled.

Noting that Gilmore alleged in his complaint that he was exhausting his administrative remedies under the PLRA during the applicable limitations period, the Court vacated the district court’s statute of limitations dismissal and remanded for the “district court to consider, in the first instance, whether Gilmore is entitled to toll the statute of limitations during the period of time he was exhausting his administrative remedies under the PLRA.”

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Related legal case

Gilmore v. Silva