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Exhaustion of Remedies

Exhaustion of Remedies

The exhaustion-of-remedies doctrine requires that procedures established by statute, common law, contract, or custom must be initiated and followed in certain cases before an aggrieved party may seek relief from the courts. After all other available remedies have been exhausted, a lawsuit may be filed.

Woodford v. Ngo

The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995(PLRA), 42 USC 1997e et seq., requires inmates to exhaust any available administrative remedies before challenging their prison conditions in federal court. In Woodford v. Ngo, No. 05-416, 548 U.S. ___ (2006), the U.S. Supreme Court was faced with the question of whether a prisoner satisfied the "exhaustion of administrative remedies" requirement by filing an untimely or otherwise defective administrative grievance or appeal that is dismissed or rejected. The high court held that the PLRA required a "proper" exhaustion of administrative remedies. The effect of the Court's holding was to dismiss prisoner Ngo's civil rights action in federal court because he had not "properly exhausted" his administrative appeals when he filed an untimely prison grievance. His failure to file a timely grievance cost him the right to have his claim adjudicated on the merits.

Prisoner Viet Mike Ngo was serving a life sentence for murder in a California state prison. In October 2000, Ngo was placed in administrative segregation for allegedly engaging in inappropriate sexual misconduct in the prison chapel. Two months later, he was returned to the general prison population, but still prohibited from participating in "special programs," which included a variety of religious activities.

Not until approximately six months later did Ngo file a grievance with prison officials challenging that action. California has a grievance system for prisoners which requires the completion of a simple Form 602 "readily available to all inmates" which requires a staff member to sign, verifying that the prisoner first attempted informal resolution with the staff member. Following this, a dissatisfied prisoner may pursue a three-step administrative review process, commenced by the filing of the same Form 602, and any supporting documents within 15 working days (three weeks) of the action taken. Ngo's grievance was rejected as untimely because he did not file it within 15 working days of the action challenged. He appealed that decision internally, without success.

He then filed suit against prison officials in federal district court under 42 USC § 1983. The district court dismissed the claim, finding that Ngo had not fully exhausted his administrative remedies as required by the PLRA. The court reasoned that if Ngo had filed a timely grievance, the other appeals within the prison system would have been "available." The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. It held that Ngo had "exhausted" his remedies because none remained available to him (even though this was caused by his own failure to timely file a grievance).

In its petition for writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, the State of California noted the sharp disagreement among federal circuits over whether procedural failures in grievance filing (resulting in dismissal with no adjudication on the merits) constituted an "exhaustion of remedies" in the administrative forum, thus allowing prisoners to proceed to court. The Sixth and Ninth Circuits had so held, but the Third, Seventh, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits came to the opposite conclusion and barred prisoners from habeas relief in federal courts. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

The Court ruled 6-3 against prisoner Ngo, holding that the PLRA required "proper exhaustion" of administrative remedies to gain access to federal court. To hold otherwise would have the effect of allowing prisoners to disregard administrative rules and requirements, garner defaults, and start yet another appellate process in federal district court.

Writing for the Court, new Justice Alito first reviewed the PLRA, enacted "in the wake of a sharp rise in prisoner litigation in the federal courts-The PLRA contains a variety of provisions designed to bring this litigation under control." According to the Court, a centerpiece of the PLRA's efforts was an "invigorated" exhaustion provision considerably more restrictive than that required by other legislation prior to the PLRA.

The Court then reviewed California's prison grievance system. The majority opinion disagreed with Ngo's argument that the state prison system was harsh for prisoners, who were generally untrained in the law and/or poorly educated. Justice Alito noted the relative informality and simplicity of California's system. The Court otherwise dismissed Ngo's arguments that the PLRA exhaustion requirement was patterned on habeas law or similar to §14(b) of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADA) or §706(e) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, stating that neither provision was in any way an exhaustion provision. Further, said the Court, no statute or case purports to require exhaustion while at the same time allows a person to deliberately bypass the administrative process with no risk of sanction.

Justice Stevens was joined in his dissent by Justices Souter and Ginsburg. He argued the absence of textual support for the conclusion drawn by the majority, stating "[t]he plain text of the PLRA simply requires that 'such administrative remedies as are available' be exhausted." The three justices wrote that the Constitution guaranteed prisoners, like all citizens, a reasonably adequate opportunity to raise constitutional concerns before impartial judges.

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