SCOTUS Vacates PLRA Ruling; Asks if Maryland Remedy ‘Unavailable'

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By Jessica DaSilva

June 6 — The Supreme Court June 6 vacated and remanded a case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, expressing concern that the state of Maryland does not effectively provide an administrative remedy for prisoners seeking relief under the Prison Litigation Reform Act ( Ross v. Blake, 2016 BL 179235, U.S., No. 15-339, 6/6/16 ).

The court originally granted certiorari to determine whether a circuit court could create a “special circumstances” exception under the PLRA for an inmate who thought he had exhausted his administrative remedies before filing a civil claim, but did not actually comply.

On that question, the court held that the “special circumstances” exception was inconsistent with the PLRA.

New documents that were lodged with the court the day before the March 29 oral argument raised a question as to whether the state of Maryland's guidance to inmates was so confusing that the state effectively failed to provide any remedy at all (98 CrL 616, 3/30/16).

Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer both filed separate concurring opinions.

One constitutional law professor told Bloomberg BNA that the decision wasn't exactly surprising, but the unanimity of the ruling and significant reasoning dedicated to unavailability suggest that the court is urging the Fourth Circuit to find Maryland did not provide an adequate remedy to prisoners.

No Room for Interpretation

Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan first addressed the Fourth Circuit's failure to “ground its analysis in the PLRA’s language,” calling the special circumstances exemption “judge-made.” The language of the PLRA does not allow for that kind of judicial interpretation, she said.

“[A] statutory exhaustion provision stands on a different footing,” Kagan wrote. “There, Congress sets the rules—and courts have a role in creating exceptions only if Congress wants them to. For that reason, mandatory exhaustion statutes like the PLRA establish mandatory exhaustion regimes, foreclosing judicial discretion.”

The purpose of the PLRA was to increase the standards for exhausting remedies, thus inherently undermining the Fourth Circuit's exemption, according to the opinion.

Agency Function

In Maryland, the Internal Investigative Unit, or IIU, investigates serious misconduct by correctional officers for the state. The administrative remedy process, or ARP, describes the state process to address inmate grievances and award compensation, if necessary.

The Inmate Grievance Office, or IGO, is an entity independent from the prison with the authority to act as the ARP when the ARP is not available. When the ARP is available, the IGO hears appeals from the ARP.

Defendant Shaidon Blake filed a grievance with the IIU against correctional officers who assaulted him in prison. When the IIU denied the claim, Blake filed a lawsuit in federal court. The officer countered that Blake had failed to exhaust his remedies because he did not file a separate grievance through the ARP or IGO.

However, the materials lodged with the court one day before oral arguments showed that Maryland used a rubber stamp, almost always automatically denying ARP claims that were under IIU investigation.

No Available Remedy?

In analyzing whether Maryland made its administrative remedy sufficiently available to prisoners, Kagan wrote that both the government and defendant's documents seemed to support the suspicion that Maryland's administrative relief scheme is so confusing that it is unavailable.

However, the new documents submitted to the court could not be enough for the justices to answer that question, the opinion states.

“The materials we have seen are not conclusive; they may not represent the complete universe of relevant documents, and few have been analyzed in the courts below,” Kagan wrote. “On remand, in addition to considering any other arguments still alive in this case, the court must perform a thorough review of such materials, and then address the legal issues we have highlighted concerning the availability of administrative remedies.”

In addition to determining availability of remedy, she asked the court to determine whether “Maryland officials thwarted the effective invocation of the administrative process through threats, game-playing, or misrepresentations, either on a system-wide basis or in the individual case[.]”

A Strong Suggestion

Steven D. Schwinn, an associate professor at John Marshall Law School in Chicago, previously guessed that the court would remand to avoid an even split of the justices (99 CrL 13, 4/6/16). While he said he wasn't hugely surprised at the ruling, he found it interesting that the ruling was effectively unanimous.

With nearly half the opinion stressing legal reasoning behind unavailability, Schwinn said the court seems to “strongly suggest” how the justices think the Fourth Circuit should rule.

“That's a pretty strong statement when you have that many members criticizing the administrative process,” he said.

Even though the case was one of two effectively unanimous decisions that seemed to support prisoners' civil rights, Schwinn said he would hesitate to call it a trend.

“These are pretty narrow statutory decisions that don't answer important questions,” he said. “I'm not sure they break any new ground. The court is just doing its statutory construction business.”

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