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New Mexico Supreme Court Rules Both Prisoners and Nonprofit Plaintiffs Subject to Requirement to Exhaust Administrative Remedies

by Jacob Barrett

On August 25, 2022, the New Mexico Supreme Court affirmed dismissal of a challenge to the state’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic in New Mexico prisons. Though not entirely agreeing with the lower court’s reasoning, the Court affirmed the result because none of the named prisoner plaintiffs had exhausted the grievance procedure of the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD). Moreover, the Court said that allowing any non-prisoner plaintiffs to proceed on the claims would impermissibly subvert the exhaustion requirement.

The New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico joined eight state prisoners to file the habeas corpus petition in state court. They alleged violations of substantive due process, free speech and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment under the New Mexico Constitution for themselves and similarly situated prisoners.

Plaintiffs sought a class-wide writ of habeas corpus and relief under Rule l - 023(B)(2). They asked the court to require adequate testing for COVID-19 and mask-wearing for NMCD staff, as well as an order to provide prisoners with masks and sanitation services, social distancing, staggered meal and recreation times to prevent the spread of the disease, evaluation rooms for symptomatic prisoners and isolation of prisoners who test positive.

However, none of the named plaintiffs exhausted administrative remedies before filing. So the district court dismissed the amended complaint; because the claims were related to conditions of confinement, they were controlled by Rule 33-2-11 (B) requiring exhaustion of NMCD’s grievance system, the lower court reasoned.

Plaintiffs appealed to the Court of Appeals for New Mexico, which certified the question for review to the Supreme Court. On review the Court concluded, ‘‘the district court correctly determined 33-2-1l(B)’s exhaustion requirement applied to all of the Plaintiffs’ claims, including claims for writ of habeas corpus.”

“A court cannot excuse a petitioner from complying with an explicit detailed statutory duty to exhaust administrative remedies,” the Court reasoned.

Exhaustion would be satisfied if one or more members of a plaintiff class has exhausted all administrative remedies, the Court said. But none had done so here. Moreover, the non-profit plaintiffs were not exempt from exhaustion. “To allow the nonprofit organizations to pursue the claims ... when none of the [prisoner plaintiffs] have exhausted their administrative remedies would render meaningless the requirements for exhaustion,” the Court said.

Accordingly, the district court’s order was affirmed dismissing the complaint for failure to exhaust. Plaintiffs were represented by Albuquerque attorney Ryan J. Villa, Denver attorney Christopher J. Casolaro and Minneapolis attorney John P. Mandler of Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP. See: Anderson v. State, 2022-NMSC-019.

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