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Fourth Circuit: Federal Prisoner in North Carolina Making Rehabilitation Act Claim Must Exhaust Both BOP Grievance Process and Justice Department’s EEO Complaint Process

by David M. Reutter

On March 29, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit raised the high bar a prisoner must clear in civil rights litigation just a little bit higher. It held that a federal prisoner must exhaust both internal and external remedies before pursuing a claim in federal court under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (RA), 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq.

The Court’s opinion affirmed a district court’s finding that the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e, requires exhaustion of available remedies from both the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Administrative Remedy Program (ARP) and the Director for Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) of BOP’s parent agency, the U.S. Department of Justice.

On February 28, 2019, while imprisoned at the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, North Carolina, Webster Williams developed a strong urge to urinate while walking to his work assignment. Williams suffered from several medical conditions, including kidney disease, and took a prescribed diuretic that caused excessive urination. But just as he headed to the restroom, an alarm triggered elsewhere in the prison.

BOP Unit Manager Willis responded by heading to the restroom and telling prisoners there to return to their cells. Williams proceeded past Willis without addressing him and entered a stall. He then ignored Willis’ rapping on the stall door. When Williams exited, Willis confronted him, and Williams explained he took “water pills, and [he] had to use the restroom.” He then returned to his cell.

Williams was issued a disciplinary action report for refusing Willis’s command. Per his request, Williams received a hearing before a Uniform Disciplinary Committee (UDC). At the hearing, Williams explained his overwhelming need to urinate was caused by his medical condition, a fact he argued that Willis “intentionally omitted” from his report. He also provided UDC with a copy of ADA. Nevertheless, he was found guilty and sanctioned with loss of telephone privileges for one month.

Concerned the infraction would affect his chances for early home confinement when he becomes ineligible, Williams completed the ARP. He then filed a pro se complaint alleging the disciplinary action report and sanction violated his rights under RA.

BOP moved to dismiss the complaint, which the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina construed as a motion for summary judgment, on the grounds that Williams failed to exhaust administrative remedies as required by PLRA. BOP acknowledged that Williams had exhausted remedies through ARP. However, it argued that he had failed to exhaust the additional process under EEO, which “applies to all allegations of discrimination on the basis of handicap in programs and activities conducted by the agency,” as laid out in 28 C.F.R. § 39.170(a). In fact, as the Fourth Circuit later noted, subsequent subsections of that regulation twice refer to complaints filed by BOP prisoners in the EEO process.

The district court found that PLRA’s mandatory language required RA claimants to exhaust both the ARP and EEO processes. Williams argued that even if that were true, the EEO process was “unavailable” to him under the standards delineated in Ross v. Blake, 578 U.S. 632 (2016). But the district court disagreed, finding that Williams “had not established that the EEO process is unavailable.” After his complaint was dismissed, Williams appealed.

The Fourth Circuit began its analysis by citing the mandatory language of PLRA: “No action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 of this title, or any other Federal law, by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.” Williams argued that “[e]xhaustion of internal prison grievance procedures is all the PLRA requires.” But the Fourth Circuit said that “argument runs afoul of the PLRA’s text.” It found that the “plain language of the PLRA requires exhaustion of all administrative remedies, so long as they are available.”

“For most claims, federal prisoners need only follow the rules of the ARP,” the Court allowed. “For Rehabilitation Act claims, however, inmates must also follow the procedures laid out in 28 C.F.R. Section 39.170.” Those procedures apply to prisoners and “explain when and how to file a complaint.”

First, they require exhaustion of ARP and filing of an EEO complaint within 180 days of that. If the matter is not resolved within 180 days, a letter of findings must be issued. Either party may then appeal those findings to the EEO Complaint Adjudication Officer (CAO) within 30 days. A party may also request a hearing before an administrative law judge. The CAO must resolve the appeal within 60 days with a final agency decision. At that point, the Court said, the administrative process is exhausted.

The Fourth Circuit found this dual exhaustion process serves the PLRA’s purpose by providing the EEO to correct BOP’s mistakes. It listed numerous district courts within its jurisdiction that have required exhaustion of both ARP and EEO when confronted with an RA claim. Both processes were available to Williams. The Court, however, “observe[d] that it would pain the BOP very little to make clearer to inmates filing Rehabilitation Act claims that they are required to exhaust both the BOP’s grievance policies and the EEO process . . . with its various program statements and agency procedures.” 

In affirming the district court’s dismissal of the complaint without prejudice to Williams’ ability to exhaust EEO remedies, the Fourth Circuit trusted the administrative process would provide the prisoner “the chance to fairly present his claims as he seeks to fulfill his statutory responsibilities.” Williams was represented before the Court by attorney Jennifer A. Wedekind of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C. See: Williams v. Carvajal, 63 F.4th 279 (4th Cir. 2023).