204 F.3d 65 (3rd Cir. 2000), 98-3543, Nyhuis v. Reno

Docket Nº:98-3543
Citation:204 F.3d 65
Party Name:DOUGLAS NYHUIS, Appellant v. JANET RENO, Attorney General; ERIC HOLDER, Deputy Attorney General; KATHLEEN HAWK, DIRECTOR-BOP; JOHN HAHN, WARDEN
Case Date:February 15, 2000
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

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204 F.3d 65 (3rd Cir. 2000)




No. 98-3543

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

February 15, 2000

Argued: January 11, 2000

On Appeal From the United States District Court For the Western District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civ. No. 97-cv-00324E) District Judge: Honorable Sean J. McLaughlin

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Counsel for Appellant: JOSEPH M. RAMIREZ, ESQUIRE (ARGUED) Eckert, Seamans, Cherin & Mellott, LLC 600 Grant Street, 44th Floor Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Counsel for Appellees: DAVID W. OGDEN, ESQUIRE Acting Assistant Attorney General BARBARA L. HERWIG, ESQUIRE PETER R. MAIER, ESQUIRE (ARGUED) United States Department of Justice Civil Division, Appellate Staff 601 D Street, NW Room 9012 Washington, DC 20530-0001, BONNIE R. SCHLUETER, ESQUIRE TINA M. OBERDORF, ESQUIRE Office of the United States Attorney 633 United States Post Office & Courthouse Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Before: BECKER, Chief Judge, ALITO and BARRY, Circuit Judges.


BECKER, Chief Judge.

Given the large number of prisoner lawsuits filed in the federal courts each year, the case at bar raises an important question of statutory interpretation regarding the mandatory exhaustion requirement governing prisoner lawsuits. As amended by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 (the PLRA), 42 U.S.C. S 1997e(a) provides that "[n]o 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." 42 U.S.C. S 1997e(a) (amended by Pub. L. 104-134, Title I, S101(a), 110 Stat. 1321-71 (1996)) (emphasis added).

Douglas Nyhuis, an inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution McKean (FCI McKean), brought this Bivens action--alleging several violations of his property rights, and seeking monetary, declaratory, and injunctive relief-without first exhausting the administrative process available to him at FCI McKean. He argues that he did not avail himself of the administrative process because it could not provide him with two of the three forms of relief that he seeks in the present action--specifically, the monetary and declaratory relief. Accordingly, he argues, because pursuit of his administrative remedies would have been for the most part futile, S 1997e(a)'s exhaustion requirement should not bar his action.

Several of our sister circuits have accepted this argument in cases in which exhaustion of administrative remedies is truly futile; i.e. the administrative process cannot provide the inmate-plaintiff with any form of the relief he seeks. The Defendants in this case have suggested in

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their briefing and at oral argument that such a futility exception may be appropriate under certain circumstances. Other courts, including two courts of appeals, have rejected the notion that there is ever a futility exception to S 1997e(a)'s mandatory exhaustion requirement.

Subscribing to the minority position among courts of appeals, and rejecting arguments advanced by Nyhuis and the Defendants, we hold that the PLRA amended S 1997e(a) in such a way as to make exhaustion of all administrative remedies mandatory--whether or not they provide the inmate-plaintiff with the relief he says he desires in his federal action. This conclusion is supported by the plain language of S 1997e(a), by analogous Supreme Court precedent, and by the policy considerations animating the principle of administrative exhaustion. Therefore, because Nyhuis failed to exhaust the administrative remedies available to him, we hold that his action is barred by S 1997e(a) and was appropriately dismissed by the District Court. Accordingly, we affirm the District Court's order.1


Nyhuis alleges that prison officials at FCI McKean confiscated several items of his personal property, including a tan bath robe that he purchased in a prison store; several pairs of shoes; two electric fans; an assortment of clothes, towels, and blankets; a calculator; and a Timex watch. These items were confiscated pursuant to the Bureau of Prisons' Inmate Personal Property Program Statement (P.S.) 5580.05 and Institutional Supplement 5580.05, which limited the types and amounts of items prisoners could have in their personal possession pursuant to P.S. 5580.03. Although Nyhuis objected to the confiscation of his property, he concedes that he did not pursue the administrative processes in place at FCI McKean in order to remedy these deprivations. See infra note 12 (describing the administrative process).

Instead, Nyhuis filed this pro se action, pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), in the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. In his complaint, he alleged that the Defendants--Janet Reno, Attorney General of the United States; Eric Holder, Deputy Attorney General of the United States; Kathleen M. Hawk, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons; and John E. Hahn, Warden at FCI McKean-through their control and regulation of federal prisons and in their implementation of federal law regarding prisoners' living conditions, had violated his constitutional rights by depriving him of property without due process of law, without just compensation, and in violation of substantive due process. He contended, inter alia, that the FCI officials at FCI McKean arbitrarily and unreasonably deprived him of his personal property, some of which he had purchased from the prison store, without giving him a hearing or affording him a sufficient post-deprivation remedy. Nyhuis also advanced a Fourth Amendment claim, but he has abandoned this contention on appeal. In terms of relief, he asked for (1) compensatory and punitive damages; (2) an injunction ordering both that his property be returned, and that P.S. 5580.03 be grandfathered for inmates such as himself; and (3) a declaratory judgment, ruling, inter alia, that the portion of the Congressional statute that gave rise to P.S. 5580.05 is unconstitutional.

Defendants moved under FED. R. CIV . PRO. 12(b)(6) to dismiss Nyhuis's complaint. They advanced several arguments, including the contention that, because he had failed to exhaust his available administrative remedies before filing his action in federal court, his action was barred procedurally by 42 U.S.C. S 1997e(a). Nyhuis

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contended that since the Bureau of Prisons' administrative process could not afford the monetary or declaratory relief he requested, exhaustion would essentially be futile, and thus, S 1997e(a) should not bar his action. In her Report and Recommendation, the Magistrate Judge to whom the case had been referred accepted the Defendants' procedural bar argument and rejected Nyhuis's futility argument.

Rather than merely dismiss the case at that point, so that Nyhuis might go back and exhaust his administrative remedies, she reached the merits of Nyhuis's action so as to dispose of the issues should Nyhuis refile his action after exhausting the administrative process. See Nyhuis v. Reno, No. 97-324, at 5 (W.D. Pa. July 24, 1998) ("[A]s this court only has the power to dismiss this complaint without prejudice, only to have it filed again when[Nyhuis] has exhausted his administrative remedies, the substantive allegations raised in the complaint are reviewed below.") (bold in original). Framing the merits question as one of standing, see id. at 7-8, and not allowing for discovery or the development of a factual record before ruling on Nyhuis's claims, the Magistrate Judge opined that Nyhuis had failed to demonstrate that he had a cognizable property interest in his personal property, see id. at 9.

Nyhuis filed a timely objection to the Magistrate Judge's report and recommendation. The District Court adopted the Magistrate Judge's report and recommendation as its opinion and ordered that the Defendant's motion to dismiss be granted. Nyhuis timely appealed. The District Court had jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. S 1331. We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. S 1291.2



Our analysis focuses on whether S 1997e(a), as amended by the PLRA, contemplates a futility exception in cases in which the applicable administrative process cannot afford the inmate-plaintiff with the relief he seeks in his federal action, and whether such an exception applies in this case. Section 1997e(a) provides that

[n]o 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.

42 U.S.C. S 1997e(a). As the statutory language makes clear, S 1997e(a) applies equally to S 1983 actions and to Bivens actions. See, e.g., Lavista v. Beeler, 195 F.3d 254, 256 (6th Cir. 1999). Bivens actions are by definition "brought . . . under . . . Federal law," 42 U.S.C. S 1997e(a), and Congress clearly intended to sweep

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Bivens actions into the auspices of the S1997e(a) when it enacted the PLRA, see Lavista, 195 F.3d at 256 (collecting legislative history); see also Alexander v. Hawk, 159 F.3d 1321, 1324-25 (11th Cir. 1998) (same); Garrett v. Hawk, 127 F.3d 1263, 1265 (10th Cir. 1997) (same).

Several courts of appeals have addressed the exhaustion and futility question with which we are faced. Two general lines of authority have emerged from these cases. In cases in which a prison's internal grievance procedure cannot provide money damages and the plaintiff asks only for money damages arising only out of isolated past...

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