POST WRITTEN BY: Michael B. Mushlin, Professor of Law at Pace Law School, Scholar, and Renowned Expert on Prisoners’ Rights.
The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) sets up roadblocks for prisoners in civil rights cases that are uniquely harsh including a requirement that prisoners must exhaust all available administrative remedies. This exhaustion requirement, which is not imposed on other civil rights litigants, often keeps litigants with meritorious claims out of court. Recently, in Ross v. Blake, No. 15-339, the Supreme Court took a Maryland case from the Fourth Circuit holding that the exhaustion requirement should be excused if the inmate makes a “reasonable mistake” about whether a particular administrative remedy is, in fact, available.
However, during oral argument last week the Court learned that this issue may not be presented by this case at all. This is because in papers filed with the Court before the case was argued it appeared that Maryland’s complicated and confusing administrative remedies were probably, in fact, unavailable to the inmate after all. Thus, there was no “reasonable mistake” after all. And no need to decide whether if there were such a mistake that would excuse the inmate from the obligation to exhaust.
Based on this new information it appears from the oral argument of the case that the Court will either remand the case or dismiss the case as improvidently granted for review. But even if the case is dismissed or remanded the case has value because the oral argument record available here reveals dramatically the Kafkaesque world of confusing remedies that prisoners must confront and overcome to achieve their day in court. If one needs proof of the lack of wisdom of the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement, and the need to repeal it, look no further.
- Brief Summary of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook.
- 42 U.S.C. § 1997e (2012) – Suits by Prisoners (Cornell LII).
- Amy Howe, Argument Preview: Filing Fees and Payments Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, SCOTUS Blog (Nov. 3, 2015).
- Know Your Rights: The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), ACLU (last updated Aug. 2011) .
- No Equal Justice: The Prison Litigation Reform Act in the United States, Human Rights Watch (June 16, 2009).