U.S. Supreme Court holds PLRA does not have a “special circumstance” exception, but does require analysis of “available” administrative procedures for relief

Ross v Blake 15-339  (U.S. June 6, 2016) Slip Opinion

This is a §1983 excessive force case, but its main focus is on the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”) compliance.

While transporting an inmate (Blake) to a segregation unit, a prison guard (Madigan) assaulted Blake. Blake sued for excessive force and sued both guards transporting him (Madigan and Ross). A jury found for Blake. Ross had raised the affirmative defense that the PLRA required exhaustion of administrative remedies, which were not performed. Ross argued that Blake had filed suit without first following the prison’s prescribed procedures for obtaining an administrative remedy, while Blake argued that the internal affairs investigation was a substitute for those procedures. The trial court sided with Ross and dismissed the suit. The Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that “special circumstances” can excuse a failure to comply.

The United States Supreme Court held the Fourth Circuit’s unwritten “special circumstances” exception is inconsistent with the text and history of the PLRA. The Court went into a history of the PLRA and utilized statutory construction principles to analyze the words and phrases including the mandatory nature of the word “shall” and the lack of any wording relating to “special circumstances.”  It held “[t]oday, we reject that freewheeling approach to exhaustion as inconsistent with the PLRA. But we also underscore that statute’s built-in exception to the exhaustion requirement: A prisoner need not exhaust remedies if they are not ‘available.’ The briefs and other submissions filed in this case suggest the possibility that the aggrieved inmate lacked an available administrative remedy. That issue remains open for consideration on remand, in light of the principles stated below.” An administrative procedure is unavailable when (despite what regulations or guidance materials may promise) it operates as a simple dead end— with officers unable or consistently unwilling to provide any relief to aggrieved inmates. So, exhaustion of administrative remedies is mandatory, but only if such remedies are actually present. Since the availability issue remains unresolved, the case is remanded.

Justice Thomas’ concurring opinion simply chastised Blake’s attorney for attempting to submit new evidence on appeal. Justice Breyer’s concurring opinion states he would not preclude situations where “special circumstances” could occur, but agrees that is not necessary to resolve in this case.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Judgment VACATED and case REMANDED. Kagan, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Ginsburg, Alito, and Sotomayor, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. Breyer, J., filed an opinion concurring in part. Click here to access the Docket Page with attorney information.