548 U.S. 81 (2006), 05-416, Woodford v. Ngo

Docket Nº:No. 05-416.
Citation:548 U.S. 81, 126 S.Ct. 2378, 165 L.Ed.2d 368
Party Name:Jeanne S. WOODFORD et al., Petitioners, v. Viet Mike NGO.
Case Date:June 22, 2006
Court:United States Supreme Court

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548 U.S. 81 (2006)

126 S.Ct. 2378, 165 L.Ed.2d 368

Jeanne S. WOODFORD et al., Petitioners,


Viet Mike NGO.

No. 05-416.

United States Supreme Court

June 22, 2006

Argued March 22, 2006.


[126 S.Ct. 2380] Syllabus[*]

The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA) requires a prisoner to exhaust any available administrative remedies before challenging prison conditions in federal court. 42 U.S.C. §1997e(a). Respondent filed a grievance with California prison officials about his prison conditions, but it was rejected as untimely under state law. He subsequently sued petitioner officials under §1983 in the Federal District Court, which granted petitioners' motion to dismiss on the ground that respondent had not fully exhausted his administrative remedies under §1997e(a). Reversing, the Ninth Circuit held that respondent had exhausted those remedies because none remained available to him.


The PLRA's exhaustion requirement requires proper exhaustion of administrative remedies. Pp. 87-103.

(a) Petitioners claim that a prisoner must complete the administrative review process in accordance with applicable procedural rules, including deadlines, as a precondition to bringing suit in federal court, but respondent contends that §1997e(a) allows suit once administrative remedies are no longer available, regardless of the reason. To determine the correct interpretation, the Court looks for guidance to both administrative and habeas corpus law, where exhaustion is an important doctrine. Administrative law requires proper exhaustion of administrative remedies, which "means using all steps [126 S.Ct. 2381] that the agency holds out, and doing so properly." Pozo v. McCaughtry, 286 F.3d 1022,1024. Habeas law has substantively similar rules, though its terminology is different. Pp. 87-93.

(b) Given this background, the Court is persuaded that the PLRA requires proper exhaustion. Pp. 93-99.

(1) By referring to "such administrative remedies as are available," §1997e(a)'s text strongly suggests "exhausted" means what it means in administrative law. P. 93.

(2) Construing §1997e(a) to require proper exhaustion also serves the PLRA's goals. It gives prisoners an effective incentive to make full use of the prison grievance process, thus providing prisons with a fair opportunity to correct their own errors. It reduces the quantity of prisoner suits. And it improves the quality of those suits that are filed because proper exhaustion often results in creation of an administrative

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record helpful to the court. In contrast, respondent's interpretation would make the PLRA's exhaustion scheme totally ineffective, since exhaustion's benefits can be realized only if the prison grievance system is given a fair opportunity to consider the grievance. That cannot happen unless the grievant complies with the system's critical procedural rules. Respondent's arguments that his interpretation would filter out frivolous claims are unpersuasive. Pp. 93-96.

(3) As interpreted by respondent, the PLRA exhaustion requirement would be unprecedented. No statute or case purports to require exhaustion while at the same time allowing a party to bypass deliberately the administrative process by flouting the agency's procedural rules. None of his models is apt. He first suggests that the PLRA requirement was patterned on habeas law as it existed between 1963 and 1977 when, under Fay v. Noia, 372 U.S. 391, 438, 83 S.Ct. 822, 9 L.Ed.2d 837, a federal habeas claim could be procedurally defaulted only if the prisoner deliberately bypassed state remedies. That would be fanciful, however. The PLRA was enacted contemporaneously with the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which gave federal habeas review a structure markedly different from what existed before 1977. Furthermore, respondent's interpretation would not duplicate that scheme, for it would permit a prisoner to bypass deliberately administrative review with no risk of sanction. Respondent next suggests that the PLRA exhaustion requirement is patterned on §14(b) of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 and §706(e) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but neither provision is in any sense an exhaustion provision. Pp. 96-99.

(c) Respondent's remaining arguments regarding §1997e(a)'s interpretation are also unconvincing. Pp. 99-103.

403 F.3d 620, reversed and remanded.

ALITO, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and SCALIA, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. BREYER, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 103. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SOUTER and GINSBURG, JJ., joined, post, p. 104.


Jennifer G Perkell, Deputy Attorney General of California, argued the cause for petitioners. With her on the briefs were Bill Lockyer, Attorney General, Manuel M. Madeiros, [126 S.Ct. 2382] State Solicitor General, James M. Humes, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Frances T. Grunder, Senior Assistant Attorney General, and Thomas S. Patterson, Supervising Deputy Attorney General.

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Dan Himmelfarb argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Clement, Assistant Attorney General Keisler, Deputy Solicitor General Garre, and Barbara L. Herwig.

Meir Feder argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Charles R. A. Morse and Donald B. Ayer[*]



This case presents the question whether a prisoner can satisfy the Prison Litigation Reform Act's exhaustion requirement, 42 U.S.C. §1997e(a), by filing an untimely or otherwise procedurally defective administrative grievance or

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appeal. We hold that proper exhaustion of administrative remedies is necessary.



Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA), 110 Stat. 1321-71, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §1997e et seq., in 1996 in the wake of a sharp rise in prisoner litigation in the federal courts, see, e.g., Alexander v. Hawk, 159 F.3d 1321, 1324-1325 (C.A.11 1998) (citing statistics). The PLRA contains a variety of provisions designed to bring this litigation under control. See, e.g., §1997e(c) (requiring district courts to weed out prisoner claims that clearly lack merit); §1997e(e) (prohibiting claims for emotional injury without prior showing of physical injury); §1997e(d) (restricting attorney's fees).

A centerpiece of the PLRA's effort "to reduce the quantity . . . of prisoner suits" is an "invigorated" exhaustion provision, §1997e(a). Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 524, 122 S.Ct. 983, 152 L.Ed.2d 12 (2002). Before 1980, prisoners asserting constitutional claims had no obligation to exhaust administrative remedies. See Wilwording v. Swenson, 404 U.S. 249, 251, 92 S.Ct. 407, 30 L.Ed.2d 418 (1971) (per curiam) . In the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, §7, 94 Stat. 352-353, Congress enacted a weak exhaustion provision, which authorized district courts to stay actions under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, for a limited time while a prisoner exhausted "such plain, speedy, and effective administrative remedies as are available." §1997e(a)(1) (1994 ed.). "Exhaustion under the 1980 prescription was in large part discretionary; it could be ordered only if the State's prison grievance system met specified federal standards, and even then, only if, in the particular case, the court believed the requirement 'appropriate and in the interests of justice.' " Nussle, supra, at 523, 122 S.Ct. 983 (quoting §1997e). In addition, this provision did not require exhaustion if the prisoner sought only money damages and such

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relief was not available under the relevant administrative scheme. See McCarthy v. Madigan, 503 U.S. 140, 150-151, 112 S.Ct. 1081, 117 L.Ed.2d 291 (1992).

The PLRA strengthened this exhaustion provision in several ways. Exhaustion is no longer left to the discretion of the district court, but is mandatory. See Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731, 739, 121 S.Ct. 1819, 149 L.Ed.2d 958 (2001). Prisoners must now exhaust all "available" remedies, not just those that meet federal standards. Indeed, as we held in Booth, a [126 S.Ct. 2383] prisoner must now exhaust administrative remedies even where the relief sought—monetary damages—cannot be granted by the administrative process. Id., at 734, 121 S.Ct. 1819. Finally, exhaustion of available administrative remedies is required for any suit challenging prison conditions, not just for suits under §1983. Nussle, supra, at 524, 122 S.Ct. 983.


California has a grievance system for prisoners who seek to challenge their conditions of confinement. To initiate the process, an inmate must fill out a simple form, Dept. of Corrections, Inmate/Parolee Appeal Form, CDC 602 (12/87) (hereinafter Form 602), that is made "readily available to all inmates." Cal. Code Regs., tit. 15, §3084.1(c) (2004). The inmate must fill out two parts of the form: part A, which is labeled "Describe Problem," and part B, which is labeled "Action Requested." Then, as explained on Form 602 itself, the prisoner "must first informally seek relief through discussion with the appropriate staff member." App. 40-41. The staff member fills in part C of Form 602 under the heading "Staff Response" and then returns the form to the inmate.

If the prisoner is dissatisfied with the result of the informal review, or if informal review is waived by the State, the inmate may pursue a three-step review process. See §§3084.5(b)-(d). Although California labels this "formal" review (apparently to distinguish this process from the prior step), the three-step process is relatively simple. At the first level, the prisoner must fill in part D of Form 602, which

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states: "If you are dissatisfied, explain below." Id., at 40. The inmate then must...

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