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Tomorrow’s Argument in Jones v. Bock/Williams v. Overton

The following argument preview was written by Melanie Wachtell, a student at Stanford Law School:

The second argument Monday is the consolidated argument of Jones v. Bock, No. 05-7058, and Williams v. Overton, No. 05-7142. A third case, Walton v. Bouchard, was joined with Williams at the Sixth Circuit and is also argued here. The cases raise three questions regarding the Prison Litigation Reform Act’s requirement that prisoners exhaust all administrative remedies before bringing suit in federal court. First, does the burden lie with the prisoner to plead how he exhausted his administrative remedies in his complaint or is the defense instead required to plead non-exhaustion as an affirmative defense? Second, is a prisoner required to name each § 1983 defendant in the underlying grievance to exhaust his remedies with respect to that defendant? And third, does the PLRA require “total exhaustion,” such that all claims in a prisoner’s suit must be dismissed if one claim is not fully exhausted? The Court’s resolution of these procedural issues will affect the civil rights actions of thousands of prisoners who seek redress in federal court each year.

Jean-Claude Andre of Ivy, Smith, & Ramirez will argue on behalf of petitioners Lorenzo Jones, Timothy Williams, and John Walton. Linda M. Olivieri, Assistant Attorney General of Michigan, will argue on behalf of the respondent prison officials. The parties’ briefs are available here.

The three cases underlying this matter all arise from civil rights actions filed in federal district court by prisoners. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of each case for failing to satisfy the exhaustion requirement of the Prison Litigation Reform Act.

Petitioner Jones was in the custody of the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) when he suffered serious injuries in an automobile accident. He was subsequently placed on a work assignment which he contends he could not physically handle. Jones contested this assignment by filing a grievance with the MDOC. Unsatisfied with the response to his initial grievance, he carried the matter through both stages of appeal available under the administrative system. After being denied adequate relief through the grievance process, Jones filed a pro se complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that prison officials were deliberately indifferent to his medical needs and retaliated against him for complaining about his injuries. The state concedes that Jones proceeded through all three stages of the MDOC’s grievance system, but it emphasizes both that his § 1983 complaint did not describe with particularity how he had exhausted his administrative remedies and that he failed to attach evidence of his administrative grievances to his complaint. The district court dismissed Jones’s entire complaint for failing to meet the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, holding that Jones’s failure to fully describe his administrative efforts or to attach proof of exhaustion to his complaint constituted grounds for dismissal of all his claims. The court further held that it was insufficient for Jones to attach such proof to his opposition to respondents’ motion to dismiss.

Petitioner Williams’s civil rights action arose from the MDOC’s refusal to provide him with surgery for a condition which caused tumors to disfigure his arm. Williams filed three grievances through the MDOC’s administrative process: one alleging denial of surgery and two regarding the prison officials’ refusal to place him in a single-occupancy cell to accommodate his handicap. Like Jones, Williams went through all three stages of the administrative process before filing a § 1983 claim against various prison officials. However, he failed to name any of the defendants in his grievance for denial of surgery. The district court dismissed his entire complaint. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, holding that his failure in the original grievance to name the officials he would ultimately sue in federal court rendered his denial of surgery claim non-exhausted. Pursuant to the Sixth Circuit’s “total exhaustion” rule, Williams’s other claims relating to the single-occupancy cell were also dismissed.

Petitioner Walton allegedly assaulted a correctional officer while in custody and was placed on an indefinite “upper slot restriction” as punishment, requiring that he could only receive food and paperwork through a lower food slot in his cell door. Walton filed a grievance, naming the assistant deputy warden and claiming that white prisoners were given shorter periods of “upper slot restriction” for similar offenses. Through the two stages of administrative appeals, Walton learned that other prison officials, rather than the assistant deputy warden, were in fact responsible for his indefinite restriction. After failing to obtain relief through the grievance process, Walton filed a federal civil rights action alleging racial discrimination. As in Williams’s case, Walton’s claim was dismissed with respect to the defendants that he did not name in his initial grievance. Though he had named the assistant deputy warden, his claim against that defendant was also dismissed due to the Sixth Circuit’s adherence to the “total exhaustion” rule.

The PLRA requires that “[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions . . . by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.” Petitioners argue that in dismissing their claims, the Sixth Circuit did not adhere to the language of the statute, instead applying three “extra-statutory” rules or “judicial embellishments” to strike down their claims. Respondents counter that the requirements that prisoners plead exhaustion, name all defendants in the administrative process, and exhaust all claims are compelled by the PLRA and further the policy interests set forth by Congress.

Petitioners characterize the first requirement at issue – that they must fully describe their administrative exhaustion process in the complaint – as impermissible under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8’s plain statement pleading standard. Moreover, they argue that the Sixth Circuit’s refusal to allow prisoners to amend their complaints to include evidence of exhaustion violates Rule 15’s liberal amendment standard. They argue that the burden falls on defendants to prove non-exhaustion as an affirmative defense and that nowhere does the PLRA mandate a heightened pleading standard.

Petitioners also challenge the requirement that prisoners must name all defendants in their first grievance. They argue that the “name all defendants” rule is irreconcilable with the permissive joinder and liberal amendment policies of the Federal Rules. As with the heightened pleading requirement, they observe that nothing in the statute requires that all defendants be named. They argue further that the purpose of the exhaustion requirement is to put prison officials on notice as to the grievance at issue, not to notify individual officials of a pending lawsuit. The prisoners also emphasize that the MDOC’s administrative procedures did not require complainants to name all officials in their first grievance. Thus, they argue, plaintiffs could exhaust the available administrative remedies, and thus the PLRA’s requirement, without naming all defendants in initial filings.

In response, respondents note that under the PLRA, a court may require a defendant to respond to the complaint only if it finds that the plaintiff has a reasonable opportunity to prevail on the merits. How, they ask, can the court make this determination if a plaintiff has not described his efforts to satisfy the exhaustion requirement and named the putatively offending officials in his grievance? They argue that the PLRA’s judicial screening and exhaustion requirements cannot be enforced without mandating that prisoners plead exhaustion in their complaints. Similarly, they argue that there is no way to determine whether a plaintiff has exhausted the available administrative remedies with respect to a given defendant if that official was not named in the proceedings below. Without an administrative record identifying the defendants, the courts cannot satisfy the PLRA’s screening function.

Perhaps the most significant requirement imposed by the Sixth Circuit is the “total exhaustion” rule, which requires all of a prisoner’s claims to be thrown out if any is deemed non-exhausted. While the Sixth and Tenth Circuits currently adhere to this reading, several other circuits allow for piecemeal dismissal of non-exhausted claims. The dispute turns on the meaning of the word “action” in 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), which states that “no action shall be brought until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.” Petitioners argue that “action” refers to an individual claim, while defendants maintain that one unexhausted remedy leads to dismissal of the entire suit.

Together, these three requirements imposed on prisoners could result in the dismissal of thousands of civil rights actions each year. Defendants argue that this result is not only mandated by the language of the PLRA, but is the precise outcome intended by Congress when it passed the new mandatory exhaustion and screening requirements. Petitioners note, however, that these procedural barriers fall evenly on both meritorious and non-meritorious claims, and thus do nothing to further Congress’s goal of increasing the quality of prisoners’ civil rights actions reaching the federal courts. The disposition of this case will likely turn on whether the Court finds these rules to be “trap[s]” for the “unwary pro se prisoner,” Rose v. Lundy, 455 U.S. 509, 520 (1982), or requirements compelled by the PLRA to further Congress’s goals.