Better Late than Never?: A Faithful Interpretation of the Prison Litigation Reform Act’s Exhaustion Requirement Says No
Volume 80, No. 1, Spring 2007
By Robert Warring

On June 22, 2006, while this Comment was awaiting publication, the United States Supreme Court decided Woodford v. Ngo. In Woodford, a prisoner filed an administrative grievance with prison officials challenging a disciplinary restriction placed on his activities. Prison regulations required that a grievance be filed within fifteen working days of the challenged action, but the prisoner failed to file such grievance until some six months after imposition of the restriction. This grievance was rejected as untimely, and the prison refused to address it on appeal.

The prisoner then sued various prison officials in district court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, but because administrative remedies had not been properly exhausted under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, (“PLRA”) the court granted the officials’ motion to dismiss. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that the prisoner had “exhausted all administrative remedies available to him as required by the PLRA when he completed all avenues of administrative review available to him.” The fact that “no further level of appeal remained in the state prison’s internal appeals process” alone constituted exhaustion of administrative remedies, whether the underlying grievance was time barred or not.

The Supreme Court in turn reversed the court of appeals. The Court held, as this Comment argues, 10 that “the PLRA exhaustion requirement requires proper exhaustion,” and that proper exhaustion naturally includes adherence to the prison’s internal filing deadlines, as well as “other critical procedural rules.” The Court believed that barring untimely and other procedurally deficient grievances furthered the purposes behind the exhaustion requirement. First, requiring timely filing of grievances and appeals safeguards the authority of a correctional facility in two ways: (1) it affords the facility “an opportunity to correct its own mistakes with respect to the programs it administers before it is haled into federal court,” and (2) it demands that prisoners obey the prison’s procedural requirements governing the grievance process. Second, proper exhaustion promotes efficiency, ideally by rectifying meritorious grievances and encouraging the abandonment of unmeritorious ones, all in a timely manner. At a minimum, when a case cannot be resolved internally, a grievance filed close in time to the challenged action is likely to “produce a useful record for subsequent judicial consideration” because “witnesses can be identified and questioned while memories are still fresh, and evidence can be gathered and preserved.” Each of these results furthers the PLRA’s overarching goal of “reduc[ing] the quantity and improving the quality of prisoner suits.”

Although Woodford resolved the issue addressed in this Comment–“whether a late grievance should be considered to have exhausted an inmate’s administrative remedies in accordance with the PLRA”–this Comment continues to contribute to a more complete understanding of the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement in a number of ways. For one, this Comment gives a more detailed and comprehensive look at the “sharp rise in prisoner litigation in the federal courts,” prior to passage of the PLRA, noted in Woodford. Specifically, it provides statistical documentation of the increase in prison suits, and it also discusses the perception, especially as described in the media, that many of these suits were frivolous. This apparent frivolity is itself supported in empirical terms, and two particularly egregious, and perhaps entertaining, suits are discussed at length. Later in the Comment, empirical evidence is offered suggesting that the PLRA is in fact meetings its goal of “reduc[ing] the quantity and improving the quality of prisoner suits.” This Comment also provides insight into the legislative history of the PLRA and conveys the purposes behind it in the words of the Senators and Representatives who helped to make it law. Of particular importance is the legislative history of the exhaustion requirement itself.

A third way that this Comment adds meaningfully to the discussion of the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement is by taking on some of the criticisms of requiring proper exhaustion–criticisms that are unlikely to disappear, regardless of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Woodford. This Comment defends the belief, held by many supporters of the PLRA, that inmate litigation really was out of control, both in terms of sheer number of suits and frivolity. Debate and passage of the PLRA are also defended. Ultimately, this portion of the Comment attempts to reveal that much of the criticism directed against the PLRA and its exhaustion requirement is primarily political.

In these ways, despite the Court’s resolution of the meaning of exhaustion under the PLRA, this Comment will nonetheless serve a meaningful role in contextualizing the perceived need for legislative action, defending that legislative action, and providing counterarguments to criticism of the substance and passage of the PLRA. Thus, it is hoped that, unlike an untimely grievance or appeal under the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement, this Comment is indeed “better late than never.”

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