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Supreme Court Decision Update - Jones v. Bock

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The Supremes are off and running this week, coming right out of the gate on Monday with three new opinions. This first one, the shortest of the bunch, is Jones v. Bock (PDF of the opinion). It’s the only unanimous opinion of the day, penned by Chief Justice Johnny, and it deals with some requirements that a prisoner must meet in filing a grievance lawsuit against the department of corrections.

QuizLaw Analysis: The Court basically smacks around the Sixth Circuit today, telling the Sixth it’s been too strict. So things are a little easier now for pissed-off prisoners - they still have to go through the prison grievance process, but once they do that, there are less hoops to go through if they want to bring the lawsuit up to the courts.

What’s the Prisoner Reform Act of 1995? Referred to as the PLRA, it was passed by Congress to help unclog the federal courts from all of the prisoner litigation. One of the ways it tried to do this was by setting up an “exhaustion” requirement, which says that before a prisoner brings a lawsuit, they have to exhaust any local prison grievance procedures. The lower courts disagree on three different aspects of this provision, and the Supremes are here to settle it all.

What are the three issues the lower courts disagree on? First, there’s a question of whether it’s the prisoner’s burden, in filing a lawsuit, to plead and show that they exhausted the prison grievance procedures, or whether it’s an affirmative defense the prison can raise later. The Sixth Circuit, and some other lower courts, says the onus is on the prisoner, who must plead and demonstrate exhaustion.

Second, there’s a question of how much a prisoner must do to properly exhaust their claims in the prison grievance procedures. Specifically, the Sixth Circuit and some other courts say that any party named as a defendant in the lawsuit must have been named in the prison grievance process from the very beginning; otherwise, the case can be thrown out. Other courts are a bit more liberal about this.

Finally, there’s a question of what to do when a prisoner lawsuit includes some claims that have been exhausted and others that haven’t. The Sixth Circuit is very strict and says that if even one claim wasn’t exhausted, the whole case gets thrown out. Others are more liberal, allowing the lawsuit to move forward or allowing the complaint to be amended so that the unexhausted claims are removed.

So who’s got the burden for establishing exhaustion? Roberts says that the Sixth Circuit and its minority rule, putting the burden on the prisoner/plaintiff, is wrong. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure just require a plaintiff to include, in their complaint, a “short and plain statement of the claim.” And since the PLRA is not generally the actual source of a prisoner’s claim, there is no reason a prisoner should have to include PLRA requirements in his complaint - in other words, whether or not the prisoner met the exhaustion requirement isn’t part of their claim. What the Sixth Circuit is doing is tantamount to creating a heightened pleading standard, and the Supremes frown upon this. Plus, in other instances, courts generally find that issues of “exhaustion” are affirmative defenses to be raised by the defendant, so why should it be any different here?

The Sixth Circuit also based its way of business on another requirement of the PLRA, which says that courts must conduct early judicial screening of prisoner cases, to weed out the ones that shouldn’t be there. So the Sixth Circuit said that making the plaintiff/prisoner plead exhaustion helps this, because the court can quickly review the complaint and know whether there’s been exhaustion and whether the case can stay or should go. But Roberts says the Sixth was wrong here too, because there’s no indication that Congress intended for things to be done this way, to change exhaustion from an affirmative defense.

And what about whether prisoners have to name everyone in their grievance, from the get-go? Strike two for the Sixth Circuit. The PLRA simply says that the prisoners have to exhaust whatever administrative remedies are available. It doesn’t say that all defendants have to be named. That may not even be possible in some situations - where, for example, the identity of the responsible party isn’t discovered until well into the grievance process. Plus, with regard to the grievances in this case, the Michigan Department of Corrections’ policy doesn’t have any provision requiring all defendants to be named in the grievance. It just requires the prisoners to “be as specific as possible” and that’s what happened here. In fact, the grievance forms actually require a specific administrative official to be named, so the prisoners didn’t improperly use the state’s grievance process by not naming someone as a defendant until later.

And what about the last issue - what happens where a prisoner complaint includes some unexhausted claims? Strike three for the Sixth. Roberts says that courts definitely shouldn’t deal with claims that haven’t been exhausted, but the Sixth is doing things wrong by simply tossing the entire complaint. The PLRA says that a prisoner can’t bring an “action” until there’s been exhaustion, and the Sixth figured this meant the whole complaint had to be exhausted, otherwise the PLRA would have said “claim” instead of “action.” But Roberts says this is bad reasoning, since the statutory phrase “no action shall be brought” is nothing but boilerplate language, used all over the place, and often referring to claims rather than full complaints/actions. And Roberts doesn’t buy any of the other policy arguments which would support the Sixth Circuit’s interpretation.