Monday, June 6, 2016
The Supreme Court ruled today in Ross v. Blake that a state prisoner wasn't excused from exhausting administrative remedies under the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act because of "special circumstances," but that he may be excused if administrative remedies are unavailable.
The ruling walks back a lower-court-created exception to the PLRA exhaustion requirement, but at the same time recognizes that PLRA statutory exhaustion only applies to "available" remedies. This is probably a net loss for state prisoners (because they can no longer excuse failure to exhaust based on "special circumstances"), but it means that the plaintiff's claim in this case will stay alive, at least through remand to the lower courts, on the question whether remedies were actually "available" to him. The ruling also gives some good language on what it means to be "available" under the PLRA--fodder, no doubt, for future prisoners defending against PLRA-failure-to-exhaust claims.
While the case is not directly constitutional, it certainly has implications for prisoner civil rights and access-to-justice.
In short, the plaintiff in the case, Shaidon Blake, brought a civil rights claim against a state prison official. The official moved to dismiss for failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the PLRA. Blake countered that he did exhaust. As the case moved to the Supreme Court, it became clear that the administrative remedial scheme itself was, well, confused, and nobody could really say whether Blake exhausted or not.
The Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of Blake, saying that court-created "special circumstances" excused any failure to exhaust, especially where an inmate, as here, reasonably believed that he had sufficiently exhausted his remedies.
But a unanimous Supreme Court rejected the Fourth Circuit's "special circumstances" approach. Justice Kagan, writing for the Court, said that the PLRA contained no "special circumstances" exception, and that the courts couldn't make it up.
But at the same time, the Court said that the PLRA itself required that a plaintiff exhaust only "available" remedies, and that there were serious questions in this case whether the remedies were, in fact, available. Indeed, the Court went on at some length describing why remedies may not have been available--providing a strong prompt to the lower court on remand to hold that they were not available (and therefore to excuse Blake's failure to exhaust).
The Court said that "special circumstances" and "availability" were two different questions. Because it's probably harder to show that a remedy is unavailable than that "special circumstances" excuse exhaustion, the ruling is probably a net loss for prisoners. But at the same time, the Court remanded Blake's case with pretty specific instructions and guidance for the lower court to determine that remedies were not available, and therefore that Blake's failure to exhaust (if any) was excused. In other words, Blake may well end up at the same place he was before his case went to the Court: Exhaustion excused, but this time for lack of available administrative remedies.