Monday, January 22, 2007

SCOTUS Issues Pleadings Decision in Jones v. Bock

Today the Supreme Court issued a decision in Jones v. Bock, U.S., No. 05-7058. Here is the Syllabus of the case:

No. 05–7058. Argued October 30, 2006—Decided January 22, 2007

The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA), in order to address the large number of prisoner complaints filed in federal court, mandates early judicial screening of prisoner complaints and requires prisoners to exhaust prison grievance procedures before filing suit. 42 U. S. C. §1997e(a). Petitioners, inmates in Michigan prisons, filed grievances using the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) grievance process. After unsuccessfully seeking redress through that process, petitioner Jones filed a 42 U. S. C. §1983 suit against six prison officials. The District Court dismissed on the merits as to four of them and as to two others found that Jones had failed to adequately plead exhaustion in his complaint. Petitioner Williams also filed a §1983 suit after his two MDOC grievances were denied. The District Court found that he had not exhausted his administrative remedies with regard to one of the grievances because he had not identified any of the respondents named in the lawsuit during the grievance process. While the court found Williams’s other claim properly exhausted, it dismissed the entire suit under the Sixth Circuit’s total exhaustion rule for PLRA cases. Petitioner Walton’s §1983 lawsuit also was dismissed under the total exhaustion rule because his MDOC grievance named only one of the six defendants in his lawsuit. The Sixth Circuit affirmed in each case, relying on its procedural rules that require a prisoner to allege and demonstrate exhaustion in his complaint, permit suit only against defendants identified in the prisoner’s grievance, and require courts to dismiss the entire action if the prisoner fails to satisfy the exhaustion requirement as to any single claim in his complaint.

Held: The Sixth Circuit’s rules are not required by the PLRA, and crafting and imposing such rules exceeds the proper limits of the judicial role. Pp. 10–24.

(a) Failure to exhaust is an affirmative defense under the PLRA, and inmates are not required to specially plead or demonstrate exhaustion in their complaints. There is no question that exhaustion is mandatory under the PLRA, Porter v. Nussle, 534 U. S. 516 , but it is less clear whether the prisoner must plead and demonstrate exhaustion in the complaint or the defendant must raise lack of exhaustion as an affirmative defense. Failure to exhaust is better viewed as an affirmative defense. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) requires simply a “short and plain statement of the claim” in a complaint, and PLRA claims are typically brought under 42 U. S. C. §1983, which does not require exhaustion at all. The fact that the PLRA dealt extensively with exhaustion, but is silent on the issue whether exhaustion must be pleaded or is an affirmative defense, is strong evidence that the usual practice should be followed, and the practice under the Federal Rules is to regard exhaustion as an affirmative defense, including in the similar statutory scheme governing habeas corpus, Day v. McDonough, 547 U. S. ___, ___. Courts should generally not depart from the Federal Rules’ usual practice based on perceived policy concerns. See, e.g., Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics Intelligence and Coordination Unit, 507 U. S. 163 Those courts that require prisoners to plead and demonstrate exhaustion contend that prisoner complaints must be treated outside of the typical framework if the PLRA’s screening requirement is to function effectively. But the screening requirement does not—explicitly or implicitly—justify deviating from the usual procedural practice beyond the departures specified by the PLRA itself. Although exhaustion was a “centerpiece” of the PLRA, Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U. S. ___, ___, failure to exhaust was notably not added in terms to the enumerated grounds justifying dismissal upon early screening. Section1997e(g)—which allows defendants to waive their right to reply to a prisoner complaint without being deemed to have admitted the complaint’s allegations—shows that when Congress meant to depart from the usual procedural requirements, it did so expressly. Given that the PLRA does not itself require plaintiffs to plead exhaustion, such a result “must be obtained by … amending the Federal Rules, and not by judicial interpretation.” Leatherman, supra, at 168. Pp. 10–16.

(b) Exhaustion is not per se inadequate under the PLRA when an individual later sued was not named in the grievance. Nothing in the MDOC policy supports the conclusion that the grievance process was improperly invoked because an individual later named as a defendant was not named at the first step of the process; at the time each grievance was filed here, the MDOC policy did not specifically require a prisoner to name anyone in the grievance. Nor does the PLRA impose such a requirement. The “applicable procedural rules” that a prisoner must properly exhaust, Woodford, supra, at ___, are defined not by the PLRA, but by the prison grievance process itself. As the MDOC’s procedures make no mention of naming particular officials, the Sixth Circuit’s rule imposing such a prerequisite to proper exhaustion is unwarranted. The Circuit’s rule may promote early notice to those who might later be sued, but that has not been thought to be one of the leading purposes of the exhaustion requirement. The court below should determine in the first instance whether petitioners’ grievances otherwise satisfied the exhaustion requirement. Pp. 16–19.

(c) The PLRA does not require dismissal of the entire complaint when a prisoner has failed to exhaust some, but not all, of the claims included in the complaint. Respondents argue that had Congress intended courts to dismiss only unexhausted claims while retaining the balance of the lawsuit, it would have used the word “claim” instead of “action” in §1997e(a), which provides that “[n]o action shall be brought” unless administrative procedures are exhausted. That boilerplate language is used in many instances in the Federal Code, and statutory references to an “action” have not typically been read to mean that every claim included in the action must meet the pertinent requirement before the “action” may proceed. If a complaint contains both good and bad claims, the court proceeds with the good and leaves the bad. Respondents note that the total exhaustion requirement in habeas corpus is an exception to this general rule, but a court presented with a mixed habeas petition typically “allow[s] the petitioner to delete the unexhausted claims and to proceed with the exhausted claims,” Rhines v. Weber, 544 U. S. 269 , which is the opposite of the rule the Sixth Circuit adopted, and precisely the rule that respondents argue against. Although other PLRA sections distinguish between actions and claims, respondents’ reading of §1997e(a) creates its own inconsistencies, and their policy arguments are also unpersuasive. Pp. 19–23.

The opinion in the case is available from Cornell's Legal Information Institute at


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