__ U.S. __ (2016), 15-339, Ross v. Blake
|Citation:||__ U.S. __, 136 S.Ct. 1850, 195 L.Ed.2d 117, 84 U.S.L.W. 4352, 26 Fla.L.Weekly Fed. S 205|
|Opinion Judge:||KAGAN, JUSTICE.|
|Party Name:||MICHAEL ROSS, PETITIONER v. SHAIDON BLAKE|
|Attorney:||Julia Doyle Bernhardt argued the cause for petitioner. Zachary D. Tripp argued the cause for United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of court. Paul W. Hughes argued the cause for respondent.|
|Judge Panel:||KAGAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., [195 L.Ed.2d 122] 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. JUSTICE THOMAS, conc...|
|Case Date:||June 06, 2016|
|Court:||United States Supreme Court|
Guards (Madigan and Ross) undertook to move Blake, a Maryland inmate, to the prison’s segregation unit. Madigan assaulted Blake, punching him in the face. The prison system’s Internal Investigative Unit (IIU), issued a report condemning Madigan’s actions. Blake sued both guards under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging excessive force and failure to take protective action. A jury found Madigan liable. Ross... (see full summary)
[136 S.Ct. 1851] Argued March 29, 2016.
DECISION BELOW: 787 F.3d 693
LOWER COURT CASE NUMBER: 1307279
ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
787 F.3d 693, vacated and remanded.
[136 S.Ct. 1852] [195 L.Ed.2d 119] Two guards -- James Madigan and petitioner Michael Ross -- undertook to move respondent Shaidon Blake, a Maryland inmate, to the prison's segregation unit. During the transfer, Madigan assaulted Blake, punching him several times in the face. Blake reported the incident to a corrections officer, who referred the matter to the Maryland prison system's Internal Investigative Unit (IIU). The IIU, which has authority under state law to investigate employee misconduct, issued a report condemning Madigan's actions. Blake subsequently sued both guards under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging excessive force and failure to take protective action. A jury found Madigan liable. But Ross raised (as an affirmative defense) the exhaustion requirement of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA), which demands that an inmate exhaust " such administrative remedies [195 L.Ed.2d 120] as are available" before bringing suit to challenge prison conditions. § 1997e(a). 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 IIU investigation was a substitute for those procedures. The District Court sided with Ross and dismissed the suit. The Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that " special circumstances" [136 S.Ct. 1853] can excuse a failure to comply with administrative procedural requirements -- particularly where the inmate reasonably, even though mistakenly, believed he had sufficiently exhausted his remedies.
1. The Fourth Circuit's unwritten " special circumstances" exception is inconsistent with the text and history of the PLRA. Pp. 3-8.
(a) The PLRA speaks in unambiguous terms, providing that " [n]o action shall be brought" absent exhaustion of available administrative remedies. § 1997e(a). Aside from one significant qualifier -- that administrative remedies must indeed be " available" -- the text suggests no limits on an inmate's obligation to exhaust. That mandatory language means a court may not excuse a failure to exhaust, even to take " special circumstances" into account. When it comes to statutory exhaustion provisions, courts have a role in creating exceptions only if Congress wants them to. So mandatory exhaustion statutes like the PLRA establish mandatory exhaustion regimes, foreclosing judicial discretion. See, e.g., McNeil v.
United States, 508 U.S. 106, 113 S.Ct. 1980, 124 L.Ed.2d 21. Time and again, this Court has rejected every attempt to deviate from the PLRA's textual mandate. See Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731, 121 S.Ct. 1819, 149 L.Ed.2d 958; Porter v.
Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 122 S.Ct. 983, 152 L.Ed.2d 12; Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 126 S.Ct. 2378, 165 L.Ed.2d 368. All those precedents rebut the Fourth Circuit's " special circumstances" excuse for non-exhaustion. Pp. 3-6.
(b) The PLRA's history further underscores the mandatory nature of its exhaustion regime. The PLRA replaced a largely discretionary exhaustion scheme, see Nussle, 534 U.S., at 523, 122 S.Ct. 983, 152 L.Ed.2d 12, removing the conditions that administrative remedies be " plain, speedy, and effective," that they satisfy federal minimum standards, and that exhaustion be " appropriate and in the interests of justice." The Court of Appeals' exception, if applied broadly, would resurrect that discretionary regime, in which a court could look to all the particulars of a case to decide whether to excuse a failure to exhaust. And if the exception were confined to cases in which a prisoner makes a reasonable mistake about the meaning of a prison's grievance procedures, it would reintroduce the requirement that the remedial process be " plain." When Congress amends legislation, courts must " presume it intends [the change] to have real and substantial effect." Stone v.
2. Blake's contention that the prison's grievance process was not in fact available to him warrants further [195 L.Ed.2d 121] consideration below. Pp. 8-14.
(a) Blake's suit may yet be viable. The PLRA contains its own, textual exception to mandatory exhaustion. Under § 1997e(a), an inmate's obligation to exhaust hinges on the " availab[ility]" of administrative remedies. A prisoner is thus required to exhaust only those grievance procedures that are " capable of use" to obtain " some relief for the action complained of." Booth, 532 U.S., at 738, 121 S.Ct. 1819, 149 L.Ed.2d 958.
As relevant here, there are three kinds of circumstances in which an administrative remedy, although officially on the books, is not capable of use to obtain relief. First, an administrative procedure is unavailable when it operates as a simple dead end -- with officers unable or consistently unwilling to provide any relief to aggrieved inmates. Next, an administrative scheme might be so opaque that it becomes, practically [136 S.Ct. 1854] speaking, incapable of use -- i.e., some mechanism exists to provide relief, but no ordinary prisoner can navigate it. And finally, a grievance process is rendered unavailable when prison administrators thwart inmates from taking advantage of it through machination, misrepresentation, or intimidation. Pp. 8-11.
(b) The facts of this case raise questions about whether, given these principles, Blake had an " available" administrative remedy to exhaust. Ross's exhaustion defense rests on Blake's failure to seek relief through Maryland's Administrative Remedy Procedure (ARP) process, which begins with a grievance to the warden. That process is the standard method for addressing inmate complaints in the State's prisons. But Maryland separately maintains the IIU to look into charges of prison staff misconduct, and the IIU did just that here. Blake urged in the courts below that once the IIU commences such an inquiry, a prisoner cannot obtain relief through the ARP process. And in this Court, the parties have lodged additional materials relating to the interaction between the IIU and the ARP. Both sides' submissions, although scattershot and in need of further review, lend some support to Blake's account.
Blake's filings include many administrative dispositions indicating that Maryland wardens routinely dismiss ARP grievances as procedurally improper when parallel IIU investigations are pending. In addition, Blake has submitted briefs of the Maryland attorney general specifically recognizing that administrative practice. And Ross's own submissions offer some confirmation of Blake's view: Ross does not identify a single case in which a warden considered the merits of an ARP grievance while an IIU inquiry was underway. On remand, the Fourth Circuit should perform a thorough review of such materials, and then address whether the remedies Blake did not exhaust were " available" under the legal principles set out here. Pp. 11-14.
787 F.3d 693, vacated and remanded.
Julia Doyle Bernhardt argued the cause for petitioner.
Zachary D. Tripp argued the cause for United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of court.
Paul W. Hughes argued the cause for respondent.
KAGAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., [195 L.Ed.2d 122] 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.
The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA) mandates that an inmate exhaust " such administrative remedies as [136 S.Ct. 1855] are available" before bringing suit to challenge prison conditions. 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). The court below adopted an unwritten " special circumstances" exception to that provision, permitting some prisoners to pursue litigation even when they have failed to exhaust available administrative remedies. Today, 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...
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