Ross v. Blake

LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Ross v. Blake.


Does a prisoner’s reasonable belief that she exhausted her administrative remedies in a claim against prison officials excuse her from the Prison Litigation Reform Act’s exhaustion requirement, which compels prisoners to use all available administrative remedies before seeking relief in federal court?

Oral argument: 
March 29, 2016

The Supreme Court will decide whether a reasonable belief exception applies to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), 42 U.S.C. 1997(e). The PLRA requires that “[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions . . . until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.” Respondent Shaidon Blake, an inmate serving a life sentence in Maryland state prison, sued two prison officers, Michael Ross and James Madigan (collectively, “Ross”), in federal court for injuries sustained during an altercation. Blake did not first pursue relief through Maryland’s formal Administrative Remedy Process (“ARP”), but instead filed a complaint with the prison’s Internal Investigations Unit (“IIU”). Ross argues that because the PLRA’s mandate is strict, Blake lacks standing under the law to sue. He contends that both Congressional intent and the express text of the statute clearly foreclose the judiciary’s ability to import any “traditional” exceptions to administrative exhaustion into the PLRA. But Blake asserts that the IIU investigation precluded the option of pursuing any other administrative remedy. Even if it had not, he contends that the ARP system is far too complex to qualify as “available” under federal law. Consequently, Blake holds that the Court need not reach the issue presented because he properly exhausted all available remedies. The Court’s decision could affect prison management and prisoners’ rights.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Did the Fourth Circuit misapply this Court’s precedents in holding, in conflict with several other federal courts of appeals, that there is a common law “special circumstances” exception to the Prison Litigation Reform Act that relieves an inmate of his mandatory obligation to exhaust administrative remedies when the inmate erroneously believed that he had satisfied exhaustion by participating in an internal investigation?


Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (“PLRA”). See 42 U.S.C. 1997e(a). 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.” See id. The PLRA has several goals, such as enhancing the internal management of prisoners, reducing litigation arising out of frivolous or meritless claims, and aiding judicial decision-making through preparation of an administrative record. See Blake v. Ross, 787 F.3d 693, 697–98 (4th Circ. 2015).

Respondent Shaidon Blake is an inmate serving a life sentence at the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center. See Blake, 787 F.3d at 695­. On June 21, 2007, Lieutenant James Madigan and Sergeant Michael Ross entered Blake’s cell to escort him to another prison unit. See id. During the transfer, Madigan and Ross taunted and injured Blake. See id. Madigan tried twice to push Blake down a flight of stairs, to which Blake responded with an expletive. See id. Then, while Ross held Blake against a wall, Madigan “wrapped a key ring around his fingers” and struck Blake in the face several times. Later, Ross “dropped his knee onto Blake’s chest.” See id. Blake was taken for medical care and was later diagnosed with nerve damage. See id.

Blake immediately filed a complaint with senior correction officers. See Blake, 787 F.3d at 695­. Consequently, the Internal Investigative Unit (“IIU”) “undertook a year-long investigation and . . . confirmed that Madigan had used excessive force[.]” See id. at 695­–96. However, and contrary to the guidelines of the inmate handbook that Blake received, he did not pursue relief through Maryland’s formal administrative remedy process (“ARP”). See id. at 697.

On September 8, 2009, Blake filed suit pro se against Ross and Madigan in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, seeking recovery for his injuries under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See id. at 696. On amended answer, Ross—but not Madigan—asserted that Blake had not exhausted his available administrative remedies pursuant to the PLRA by failing to use the ARP. See id. The district court agreed and granted summary judgment for Ross and Madigan, holding that Blake’s subjective belief that the IIU investigation “relieved him of [the exhaustion] requirement” did not excuse the statutory burden. See id.; Brief for Petitioner at 16. The court later reinstated Blake’s claims against Madigan. Subsequently, Blake prevailed at trial against Madigan, and on August 9, 2013, appealed the judgment regarding Ross’ affirmative defense. See Blake, 787 F.3d at 696.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed in a close decision. See Blake, 787 F.3d at 701. Relying on Justice Breyer’s concurrence in Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81 (2006), the court noted that traditional “administrative law contains [several] well-established exceptions to exhaustion.” See id. at 698 (internal quotation marks omitted). Accordingly, the court accepted with approval the Second Circuit’s approach in Giano v. Goord, 380 F.3d 670 (2d Cir. 2004), which ruled that these exceptions apply to the PLRA. See id. An inmate like Blake could avoid the exhaustion requirement if he “reasonably believed that he had” exhausted all remedies. See id. (emphasis added).

Additionally, the Fourth Circuit adopted the Second Circuit’s two-prong test for the reasonable belief exception. The test requires that (1) the inmate was “justified in believing that his complaints . . . procedurally exhausted his administrative remedies” and that (2) his “submissions in the . . . process exhausted his remedies in a substantive sense.” See id. The majority found in favor of Blake, excusing his failure to exhaust available remedies. See id. at 698–99.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari on December 11, 2015 after the Fourth Circuit denied rehearing en banc on June 16, 2015. See generally Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, Michael Ross v. Shaidon Blake.


Ross contends that the Fourth Circuit improperly applied a judicially-crafted “special circumstances” exception, which waives the PLRA’s administrative exhaustion requirements in light of an inmate’s “reasonable belief” that she exhausted her administrative remedies. See Brief for Petitioner at 24–25. Blake argues, however, that Ross improperly framed the question presented, suggesting that the case does not require the application of a special circumstances exception. See Brief for Respondent at 13–14. Instead, Blake maintains that he did exhaust all of his “available” administrative remedies under the PLRA. See id. at 13.

A matter of Statutory or extra-textual interpretation?

Ross contends that the Fourth Circuit improperly applied a “reasonable belief” exemption that has no basis in the PLRA. See Brief for Petitioner at 25. The Fourth Circuit’s reading of the PLRA undercuts the statute’s plain meaning and Congress’ intent by allowing lower courts to “dispense with the PLRA’s mandatory exhaustion of administrative remedies.” See id. Ross argues that the Court has consistently “refus[ed] to read extra-textual exceptions from administrative law,” like reasonable belief, “into the unambiguous language of the PLRA.” See id. at 28. Ross points out that the Court has previously declined to apply other judicially-crafted exceptions to the PLRA, as illustrated by Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731 (2001), and Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81 (2006). See id. at 27.

However, Blake contends that the Court can and should decide the case based on the definition of “available” in the PLRA. See Brief for Respondent at 13. Blake explains that the PLRA only requires exhaustion of remedies that are available. Available remedies are those that permit “the administrative process” to step in and respond to complaints. See id. at 15. Exhaustion is not required if the remedies are “procedurally improper means of advancing” a claim. See id. at 15. Blake asserts that the IIU in Maryland dismisses additional administrative grievances as procedurally improper once it investigates an incident. See id. Accordingly, Blake maintains that he exhausted all available remedies, because the IIU investigation into the subject of his claim barred the door to further administrative review. Had Blake filed a formal grievance through ARP, “it would have been dismissed.” See id. at 16.

The definition of “Available”

Ross contends that an administrative remedy is available under the PLRA “as a matter of objective fact” if “the prison’s ‘administrative process [has] authority to take some action in response to a compliant,’” even if it cannot remedy the inmate’s complaint. See Brief for Petitioner at 33. Under this definition, availability is objective, so the “inmate’s belief as to the existence, accessibility, or necessity of compliance” is irrelevant. See id. at 33. The remedies exist “as a matter of objective fact,” access to them can be “readily determined,” and compliance with them is dictated by Congress. See Id. Ross points out that the remedies here are not overly complicated, as contemplated by Woodford, and that Blake did not even bother to read about the remedies. See id. at 35. Rather, the Fourth Circuit applied the reasonable belief exception to justify what Ross characterizes as Blake’s “failure” to use all available processes. See Id. at 34.

Nevertheless, Blake maintains that “an administrative remedy is not ‘available’ within the meaning of the PLRA if an objectively reasonable prisoner would not know which procedure to use or how to use it.” See Brief for Respondent at 34. Blake asserts that Woodford warned of administrative procedures “so convoluted and opaque that no one would know how to use them.” See id. at 36. Blake notes that a prisoner’s self-serving statements of subjective confusion alone would not satisfy the objective standard. See id. at 43.

Congressional Intent

Ross claims that Congress intended the exhaustion requirement to assist in decreasing meritless claims and to eliminate courts’ discretion to “dispense with [the] exhaustion” requirement. Congress wanted prison administration to be overseen by prisons rather than the courts. See Brief for Petitioner at 37, 39. As such, Ross argues that courts should not look at prison administrative remedies and scrutinize their adequacy in an effort to impose a standard of “clarity, timeliness, and effectiveness.” See id. at 38. Although the PLRA formerly required such an inquiry, Ross argues that Congress deliberately removed the “plain, speedy, and effective” language to end the practice.

Blake asserts that his definition of available still fulfills Congress’ intent. See Brief for Respondent at 49. Preventing courts from determining the adequacy of prison administrative remedy processes could cause prisons to develop more complex administrative procedures, which would confuse inmates and discourage them from bringing claims. See id. Blake contends that Congress did not intend to completely eliminate judicial discretion; rather, it intended to reduce that discretion. See id. at 49–50. Blake contends that his definition of “available” and the exhaustion requirement assists courts in selecting meritorious claims, and allows some judicial discretion to assist in protecting prisoners as required by the U.S. Constitution. See id. at 51–52.


The Court will decide whether an inmate’s reasonable belief that she exhausted her administrative remedies in a claim against prison officials excuses her failure to satisfy PLRA’s exhaustion requirement. The Court’s decision could affect the management of state prison systems and the rights of America’s inmate population. See Brief of Amici Curiae United States, in Support of Petitioner at 21.


Ross argues that the Fourth Circuit’s decision to recognize a “special circumstances” exception for inmates who reasonably but erroneously believed they had exhausted their available remedies would hinder the effective administration of state prisons. See Brief for Petitioner at 39–40. Supporting Ross, the United States contends that the exception denies prison administrators’ an opportunity “to address complaints internally.” See Brief of United States at 14. Additionally, West Virginia and 38 other states maintain that the “features of administrative exhaustion—ease of accessibility for prisoners, speed, thorough and timely investigation, and the efficient filtering of claims—are [already] reflected in the administrative grievance procedures being used by States today.” See Brief of Amici Curiae State of West Virginia et al., in Support of Petitioner at 7. These states worry about increased litigation over unmeritorious claims, which would reduce access for meritorious claims by clogging the federal dockets. See id. at 20–26.

But Blake draws attention to the risk of injustice to prison inmates. See Brief of Respondent at 34–35. Because prisoners “generally are untrained in the law and are often poorly educated,” it is critical for states to remain incentivized to maintain simple procedures. See id. at 52. Blake fears that the federal courts’ failure to ensure that internal procedures remain truly “available” and accessible would allow states to discourage inmates with meritorious claims. See id. at 49. Likewise, The Legal Aid Society of New York and Morningside Heights Legal Services, Inc. argue that “proper exhaustion” is subject to exceptions provided by administrative law. See Brief of Amici Curiae Legal Aid Society of New York et al., in Support of Respondent at *3. Amici argue that exhaustion requirements may be found in either federal common law or statutes, and assert that a prisoner’s failure to exhaust available remedies is excusable in situations that are objectively reasonable. See Id. at *7. Amici claim that Blake “literally did not know what [he] should be appealing” because the prion’s policy was undisclosed. See Id. at *10.


This case will clarify the exhaustion requirements of the PLRA. Ross argues that the Fourth Circuit improperly created a “special circumstances” exception to the PLRA’s mandatory exhaustion requirement. See Brief for Petitioner at 25, 35–36. Blake argues that the Constitution does not stop at prison walls, but instead requires prisons to have comprehensive yet uncomplicated remedial processes for handling prisoners’ complaints. See Brief for Respondent, Shaidon Blake at 51. The Court’s resolution of this case could impact prison administration and the level of judicial scrutiny over states’ administrative remedy procedures.

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