224 F.3d 95 (2nd Cir. 2000), 99-0387, Nussle v Willette

Docket Nº:Docket No. 99-0387
Citation:224 F.3d 95
Party Name:RONALD NUSSLE, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. WILLETTE, CORRECTION OFFICER, and PORTER, CORRECTION OFFICER, Defendants-Appellees.
Case Date:August 24, 2000
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

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224 F.3d 95 (2nd Cir. 2000)

RONALD NUSSLE, Plaintiff-Appellant,



Docket No. 99-0387

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

August 24, 2000

Argued: May 3, 2000

Appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Alan H. Nevas, Judge) granting the defendant's motion to dismiss the plaintiff's § 1983 complaint for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The District Court held that the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 ("PLRA") required the plaintiff to exhaust administrative remedies before bringing his § 1983 claim to court. We reverse the District Court's judgment, holding that the PLRA exhaustion requirement does not encompass claims for assault or excessive use of physical force under the Eighth Amendment.

Vacated and remanded.

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NORMAN A. PATTIS, Williams and Pattis, LLC, New Haven, CT, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

GREGORY T. D'AURIA, Assistant Attorney General, State of Connecticut (Richard Blumenthal, Attorney General, and Robert B. Fiske, III, Assistant Attorney General, on the brief), for Defendants-Appellees.

Before: CALABRESI, PARKER, and STRAUB, Circuit Judges.

STRAUB, Circuit Judge:

Appellant Ronald Nussle appeals from a judgment of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Alan H. Nevas, Judge), dismissing his complaint for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Nussle's appeal presents an issue of first impression in this Circuit:

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whether the exhaustion requirement of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), encompasses claims for excessive use of physical force under the Eighth Amendment. Because we conclude that § 1997e(a) does not apply to allegations of particular instances of excessive force or assault by prison employees, we vacate the District Court's judgment and remand for reinstatement of Nussle's complaint.


This action arises from Nussle's claim that he was wrongfully assaulted by corrections officers acting under color of law at the Cheshire Correctional Institute ("CCI") in Cheshire, Connecticut. Nussle has been an inmate at CCI, under custody of the Connecticut Department of Corrections ("DOC"), since May 1996. He alleges that from the time of his arrival at CCI, he was the target of a prolonged and sustained pattern of harassment and intimidation by corrections officers on account of his perceived friendship with the Governor of the State of Connecticut. Nussle complains of injuries arising from one particular violent incident during that period. According to Nussle, on or about June 15, 1996, defendants Willette1 and Porter entered his cell, instructed him to leave the cell, and proceeded to beat him without apparent provocation or justification of any sort. The officers allegedly "placed [Nussle] against a wall and struck him with their hands, kneed him in the back, [and] pulled his hair. The plaintiff was beaten so badly he lost control of his bowels." Nussle claims that these actions were motivated by a sadistic intent to cause physical pain, and that the officers threatened to kill him if he reported the beating. As a result of the incident, Nussle asserts that he suffered bruises, lacerations, physical pain (including ongoing numbness in his right leg), and emotional distress.

On June 10, 1999, Nussle commenced this action against corrections officers Willette and Porter in their individual capacities. His claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleges that the officers violated his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment and his Fourteenth Amendment right to substantive due process.2 Nussle also asserted pendent state law claims for assault and battery. In order to remedy his injuries, Nussle's complaint sought compensatory and punitive damages as well as attorney's fees and the costs of bringing this action. The defendants moved to dismiss Nussle's complaint on the ground that he had failed to exhaust administrative remedies. The District Court agreed and granted the defendants' motion, holding that the exhaustion requirement of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, Pub. L. No. 104 134, 110 Stat. 1321-66 (1996) ("PLRA") (codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a) (Supp. 2000)), required Nussle first to exhaust DOC's administrative remedies before taking his § 1983 claim to court. This timely appeal followed.


We review a grant of a motion to dismiss for lack of exhaustion de novo, taking as true all allegations in the complaint, and drawing all reasonable inferences therefrom in favor of the nonmoving party. See In re Merrill Lynch Ltd. Partnerships Litig., 154 F.3d 56, 58 (2d Cir. 1998). We must "vacate the dismissal unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of [his] claim which would entitle [him] to relief." SEC v. U.S. Envtl., Inc., 155 F.3d 107, 110 (2d Cir. 1998) (internal quotation marks omitted).

I. Enactment of the PLRA Exhaustion Requirement

As a general matter, exhaustion of state remedies, whether administrative or

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judicial, is not a prerequisite to maintaining an action under § 1983. See Patsy v. Board of Regents, 457 U.S. 496, 508 (1982); see also Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 480 (1994); Doe v. Pfrommer, 148 F.3d 73, 78 (2d Cir. 1998). Statutory purpose and legislative intent support this presumptive rule of non-exhaustion. The "very purpose" of § 1983, the precursor of which first was enacted during Reconstruction as part of the Ku Klux Act of April 20, 1871, ch. 22, 17 Stat. 13, was "to interpose the federal courts between the States and the people, as guardians of the people's federal rights-to protect the people from unconstitutional action under color of state law, 'whether that action be executive, legislative, or judicial.'" Mitchum v. Foster, 407 U.S. 225, 242 (1972) (quoting Ex parte Virginia, 100 U.S. 339, 346 (1880)); see Patsy, 457 U.S. at 503.

Nevertheless, exhaustion of state remedies may be required in those limited circumstances in which "Congress has carved out a specific exception to the general rule that exhaustion is not required." Doe, 148 F.3d at 78. The inmate exhaustion provision at issue in this case, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), is an exception of this sort. This provision first was enacted in 1980 as part of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act ("CRIPA"), Pub. L. No. 96 247, 94 Stat. 349 (1980) (codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. §§ 1997, 1997a 1997j (1994 & Supp. 2000)), and was intended to be "only a narrow exception" to the general rule of non-exhaustion in § 1983 actions. Patsy, 457 U.S. at 508 (1982) (refusing to require exhaustion for § 1983 claims not covered by the CRIPA exhaustion provision); see also McCarthy v. Madigan, 503 U.S. 140, 149 (1992) (declining to extend § 1997e(a)'s exhaustion provision to Bivens actions). The pre-PLRA version of § 1997e(a) provided a discretionary mechanism by which courts could (but were not obligated to) require prisoners to exhaust state administrative remedies before asserting claims under § 1983. 3

Section 803(d) of the PLRA added teeth to the § 1997e(a) exhaustion provision, affirmatively requiring prisoners to exhaust administrative remedies, whether federal or state, before bringing any federal claims "with respect to prison conditions."4 The PLRA strengthened the § 1997e(a) exhaustion provision in three relevant respects. First, by its own terms the pre-PLRA exhaustion provision applied only to § 1983 claims, not to actions brought under other federal laws. See, e.g., McCarthy, 503 U.S. at 150. The

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amended provision, by contrast, applies to any federal claim brought "with respect to prison conditions." 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). Second, the pre-PLRA provision was not mandatory upon courts. Rather, it simply authorized courts to invoke exhaustion, at their discretion, if requiring exhaustion "would be appropriate and in the interests of justice." 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a)(1) (1994) (amended 1996). In so doing, a court was permitted only to "continue" the action for up to 180 days, not to dismiss the action outright. See McCarthy, 503 U.S. at 150; Patsy, 457 U.S. at 510 11. The PLRA, however, requires exhaustion of available administrative remedies before inmate-plaintiffs may bring their federal claims to court at all. Third, exhaustion under the pre-PLRA version of § 1997e only could be required if two conditions were met: (1) if the available administrative procedures were "plain, speedy, and effective"; and (2) if the Attorney General certified, or the court itself determined, that the prison's grievance provisions substantially complied with minimum acceptable standards set forth by the Attorney General or were "otherwise fair and effective." See Patsy, 457 U.S. at 510 11. The PLRA, on the other hand, does not make "effectiveness" of administrative remedies a precondition to the exhaustion requirement.

At the same time that it expanded the scope of CRIPA's exhaustion provision, the PLRA also explicitly limited its applicability only to federal actions that are brought "with respect to prison conditions"-a qualification on the scope of the exhaustion provision not found in the pre-PLRA version of § 1997e(a). Therefore, analysis of whether the amended version of § 1997e(a) applies to excessive force or assault claims must account for the manner in which the PLRA broadened the scope of this provision as well as the manner in which it simultaneously limited that scope. Both aspects of this amendment, in other words, must be presumed to have "real and substantial effect," Stone v. INS, 514 U.S. 386, 397 (1995), so as not to render statutory language superfluous. See Baskerville v...

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