« Dixon v. United States | Main | Granny’s got a gun »

Supreme Court Decision Update - Woodford v. Ngo

supreme1.jpgIn Woodford v. Ngo (PDF of the opinion), the Supremes look at the issue of when a prisoner can file a federal lawsuit to raise prison-related grievances. The Supremes ruled that a prisoner must “properly” exhaust all administrative remedies before filing any such federal lawsuit, which means complying with all substance and procedure requirements of the prison grievance system. And if, for example, they blow a deadline, they’re out of luck and can’t turn around and file a federal lawsuit.

QuizLaw Analysis: This whole case boils down, very simply, to an interpretation of the word “exhaust.” There’s a pun in here about “hot air,” but I’m too classy to make it, so I’ll leave it to you to fill in the blanks.

Viet Mike Ngo is a California prisoner, serving a life sentence for a murder conviction. In October 2000, after allegedly getting involved in some type of “inappropriate activity” in the prison’s chapel, he was put into administrative segregation for two months. When he was returned to general population, Ngo claims that he wasn’t allowed to participate in various special programs, including religious activities. So six months later, he filed a grievance with the prisons’ officials, challenging these actions. The grievance was tossed, as the officials deemed it untimely, because state law requires grievances to be filed within 15 days of the activity in question. So he ended up suing various correctional officials in a California District Court. The officials filed a motion to dismiss, relying upon a provision of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (the “PLRA”). Specifically, section 1997e(a) of the PLRA requires prisoners to exhaust any administrative remedies before they can challenge prison conditions by filing a federal lawsuit.

The prison officials argued that this provision requires “proper exhaustion,” which means that prisoners must comply with all procedural rules of an administrative process, including deadlines, before filing a viable lawsuit - and since Ngo didn’t comply with the deadline procedure by filing his original claim in a timely fashion, he hasn’t exhausted the administrative process. Meanwhile, Ngo argued that the PLRA provision simply means a prisoner can’t file a lawsuit until there are no administrative processes left, which was his situation. The District Court sided with the prison officials and dismissed the case. However, the Ninth Circuit reversed on appeal, agreeing with Ngo that, because he was out of administrative options, the lawsuit was allowed. As there is currently a circuit split on how to interpret this exhaustion requirement, the Supremes have stepped in to try to resolve the issue.

The Court majority rules that the PLRA requires prisoners to properly exhaust all available administrative remedies before filing a federal suit (for those who don’t want to read on, this means the prison officials were right). The majority opinion, drafted by Justice Alito, and joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas, explains that everying about this case turns in how we interpret the word “exhausted.” He begins by quickly looking at administrative law and habeas law for guidance, as the notion of exhaustion is a key doctrine in both areas. He concludes that, in both instances, folks are required to “properly” exhaust their administrative remedies (in the context of administrative law) or state remedies (in the context of habeas corpus law) before being allowed to head off to federal court. Turning, then, to the PLRA itself, Alito first argues that the Act “strongly suggests” that “exhausted” is meant to be interpreted the way it is in administrative law, since the section in question specifically refers to “administrative remedies.”

Alito’s second argument in support of his interpretation is that it fits within the overall scheme and structure of the PLRA. He says the PLRA’s purpose is to get rid of unnecessary federal interference with prison administration, by giving the prisons a chance to fix things on their own, and to decrease the number of prisoner lawsuits while raising the quality of those prisoner lawsuits that still occur. “Proper exhaustion” meets these goals, Alito says, because it requires the prisoners to go through all of the state’s and prisons’ procedural requirements. If one were to side with Ngo’s interpretation, the PLRA’s purposes could be easily defeated, as a prisoner could simply let his “administrative procedural” time expire, and then file a federal lawsuit. Alito also doesn’t buy any of the proposed arguments as to how this interpretation would cut down on frivolous prisoner claims and suits.

Alito’s final argument is that Ngo’s proposed reading of “exhausted” is unprecedented, as Ngo did not present any other case or law which requires exhaustion but allows that exhaustion requirement to be met where agency procedural rules are ignored.

With these three arguments under his belt, Alito goes after Ngo’s attempted word games. Ngo tries to spin the use of words like “until” and the present tense “are,” but Alito is having none of it. Alito similarly chomps away at several other smaller arguments, finding none of them even remotely persuasive. So, at the end of the day, the judgment is simple for Alito. Because Ngo was untimely in filing his prison grievance, he didn’t properly exhaust his administrative remedies and the PLRA therefore prohibits this lawsuit, meaning the Ninth Circuit’s judgment is reversed and remanded.

Meanwhile, Justice Breyer filed a brief concurring opinion to bring up a small point. He agrees with Alito that Congress intended the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement to be similar to that of administrative law, requiring proper exhaustion. However, he notes that administration law and habeas law both allow for several established exceptions to exhaustion, such as where the prisoner can “demonstrate cause and prejudice to overcome a procedural default, or if enforcing the procedural default rule would result in a miscarriage of justice.” So Breyer urges the Ninth Circuit, on its remanded reconsideration, to consider any such challenges Ngo may have which would perhaps qualify him for such a traditional exception.

Justice Stevens filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Souter and Ginsburg, believing that the majority’s ruling just gets it wrong. He says that the PLRA, while requiring exhaustion, is silent on the distinction between administrative denials on the merits versus denials on procedural grounds. Thus, it doesn’t create any “procedural default” or waiver, where prisoners who make procedural errors are no longer entitled to rely on the PLRA’s provisions. The majority, meanwhile, imposes just such a distinction anyway, saying that prisoners who make procedural problems do waive the right to litigate under the PLRA. Stevens says Alito only reaches this conclusion by ignoring the text of the PLRA and by fudging with administrative law precedent. Stevens also says the PLRA purposes identified by Alito could be served even if the Court sided with the prisoner. And finally, Stevens thinks Alito has left the door open for years of litigation over a turn of phrase he used, “meaningful opportunity,” with regard to the question of whether prisons provide meaningful opportunity for grievances to be raised.