Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Eighth Circuit Says Arkansas Prisoner’s Medical Incapacity May Excuse PLRA Exhaustion Failure

As often reported in PLN, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e, imposes numerous requirements on incarcerated litigants—including exhaustion of administrative remedies before filing a lawsuit, by first filing a grievance and seeing it completely through a prison or jail’s system. But what if a prisoner can’t utilize the system due to physical or mental incapacitation? That was the question Arkansas prisoner John J. Smith put to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which decided on July 26, 2023, that he had a point.

Smith was brutally assaulted by a fellow prisoner wielding a “slock”—a makeshift weapon fashioned from a lock inside a sock. Severely injured in the attack, Smith was airlifted to a hospital and remained in a coma for about three weeks. Upon return to prison, he spent another 11 months in a medical unit before reentering general population. According to Smith, the Court recalled, the brain injury he suffered “was so severe that he had to relearn basic functions like walking, talking, and writing.”

Four months after release from the medical unit he filed several grievances, alleging that prison staff had failed to take actions that “would have prevented or at least mitigated the injuries he suffered in the attack.” But his grievances were denied because they were filed outside the 15-day filing time-limit after an incident.

Smith then filed suit pro se in federal court for the Eastern District of Arkansas. Predictably, Defendant officials with the state Department of Corrections argued that he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies and moved for summary judgment. The district court, finding no exception to PLRA’s exhaustion requirement that applied to Smith, granted the motion. Smith then turned to the Eighth Circuit and was appointed counsel from attorney William A. Waddell, Jr. of Friday, Eldredge & Clark LLP in Little Rock.

The Court reversed the decision. Noting that the district court relied on Ross v. Blake, 578 U.S. 632 (2016), the Court said what the Supreme Court of the U.S. (SCOTUS) had shut down in that case was a “judge-made exception” to the exhaustion requirement, instead “emphasiz[ing] the PLRA’s mandatory language.” Yet in Ross, SCOTUS also wrote that courts must apply the exhaustion standard in “the real-world workings of prison grievance systems” and limited its “narrowly defined” exceptions to the facts in that case.

Smith’s case, the Court continued, raised the “legal question of when administrative remedies are unavailable to an inmate due to a medical condition.” Quoting another SCOTUS ruling in Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731 (2001), the Court said that “available” remedies are those “capable of use to obtain some relief for the action complained of.” But the district court had declined to address whether that was the case for Smith. So the Court punted the question back to the district court, reversing the summary judgment grant and remanding for further proceedings. See: Smith v. Andrews, 75 F.4th 805 (8th Cir. 2023).

The case has now returned to the district court, where Smith is proceeding pro se once again. PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Smith v. Andrews, USDC (E.D. Ark.), Case No. 2:20-cv-00009.  

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal cases

Smith v. Andrews

Smith v. Andrews