Ross v. Blake

PETITIONER: Michael Ross
RESPONDENT: Shaidon Blake
LOCATION: Maryland Reception Diagnostic and Classification Center

DOCKET NO.: 15-339
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2016- )
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 578 US (2016)
GRANTED: Dec 11, 2015
ARGUED: Mar 29, 2016
DECIDED: Jun 06, 2016

ADVOCATES:
Paul W. Hughes - for the respondent
Zachary D. Tripp - Assistant to the Solicitor General, for the United States as amicus curiae, for the petitioner
Julia Doyle Bernhardt - for the petitioner

Facts of the case

On June 21, 2007, Lieutenants Michael Ross and James Madigan were escorting Shaidon Blake from his cell when Madigan shoved Blake several times. The incident escalated to Madigan punching Blake in the face several times with a key ring wrapped around his fingers while Ross held him. Blake was then taken to the medical unit and later diagnosed with nerve damage. Blake reported the incident to senior corrections officers, and the Internal Investigative Unit of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services conducted an investigation and issued a formal report. The formal report determined that Madigan had used excessive force against Blake and that Blake was not at fault in any way. Blake subsequently sued Ross and Madigan in addition to two supervisors and three government entities under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and argued that they violated his constitutional rights by using excessive force.

Nearly two years after Blake initially filed the suit, Ross filed an amended answer to the complaint that alleged that Blake had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) required. Ross also moved for summary judgment based on the same argument, and the district court granted the motion. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed and held that the “special circumstances” exception to the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement was met in this case. Because the internal investigation provided the correction officials time and opportunity to address the complaints internally and Blake reasonably believed that he had exhausted his administrative remedies by participating in an internal investigation, the requirements for the “special circumstances” exception to the PLRA were met.

Question

Is there a "special circumstances" exception to the Prison Litigation Reform Act’s requirement to exhaust administrative remedies when the inmate erroneously believes that he satisfied the requirement by participating in an internal investigation?

Media for Ross v. Blake

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 29, 2016 in Ross v. Blake

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 06, 2016 in Ross v. Blake

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Today's orders of the Court have been duly entered and certified and filed with the clerk.

Justice Kagan has our opinion this morning in case 15-339, Ross versus Blake.

Elena Kagan:

Some years ago a prison guard beat up an inmate without justification.

The inmate, Shaidon Blake, brought a lawsuit seeking monetary damages.

The question in this Court has nothing to do with the merits of his suit.

Instead, we consider whether Blake's suit had to be dismissed because he failed to exhaust administrative remedies before bringing it.

That's legal language for saying that the question is whether the suit was improper because Blake didn't give prison officials first crack at addressing his grievance.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act, which I am going to call the PLRA, governs prisoners’ lawsuits and it says, “No action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions and that includes prison violence, no action shall be brought by a prisoner until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.”

That language is quite strong.

It says that a prisoner has to go through whatever grievance procedures the prison has made available before bringing a lawsuit.

The guard in this case says that Blake failed to do so.

The Court of Appeals said that didn't matter because there's an unwritten special circumstances exception to the PLRA's exhaustion requirement and the court thought there were special circumstances here which gave Blake a good excuse for not exhausting.

Today, we reject that view. Congress gets to set the rules in this area and Congress didn't write a special circumstances exception into the PLRA.

To the contrary, it used mandatory language inconsistent with such an exception.

And the history of the PLRA reinforces that Congress didn't want the courts to have the kind of discretion to excuse the PLRA's exhaustion requirement that the court below thought appropriate.

The Court of Appeals got that one wrong But our opinion today is not all bad news for Blake because there is an exception to the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement that's baked right into the text.

The PLRA says that a prisoner has to exhaust available administrative grievance procedures.

The exact words are no action shall be brought until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.

That means an inmate is required to exhaust only those procedures that are capable of use to obtain some relief; if procedures aren't available; if they aren't capable of use to obtain relief than the prisoner can bring suits straight of.

We discussed three kinds of circumstances in which an administrative remedy although officially on the books is not capable of use to obtain relief.

First, a remedial procedure is unavailable when it operates as a simple dead-end with officers unable or unwilling to provide relief.

Next, an administrative scheme might be so confusing that it becomes practically speaking incapable of use because no ordinary prisoner can figure it out or navigate it.

And finally, a grievance process becomes unavailable when prison officials thwart inmates from taking advantage of it through threats and misrepresentations.

Various materials presented in this Court raise serious questions about whether in light of these principles Blake had an available administrative remedy to exhaust and so we're instructing the Court of Appeals to give further consideration to that issue.

We want the court to determine whether Blake could actually have gotten any relief from the standard grievance process, whether that process was so confusing that no ordinary prisoner could make use of it and/or whether prison officials thwarted its effective use by game-playing or misrepresentations.

Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is vacated and the case remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Justice Thomas has filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

Justice Breyer has filed an opinion concurring in part.