By Christopher Zoukis
Two Maryland state corrections officers were escorting Shaidon Blake as he was being transferred to a new cell in the west Baltimore prison where he is serving time for murder. Known as “Papa Don,” Blake was an enforcer for the California Bloods who had been sent to Baltimore to impose discipline on the gang’s drug operations there; while doing that, he oversaw the killing of a 19-year-old drug dealer.
Blake claims while he was being held by one corrections officer, the other repeatedly punched him. He told a prison higher-up, who called in the Internal Investigative Unit of the prison system, which in turn found the use of force was not justified, causing the guard who did the punching to resign to avoid being fired.
Blake also filed a federal 1983 lawsuit under the Federal Tort Claims Act against both officers and the prison; a jury eventually delivered a $50,000 verdict against the officer who resigned.
But the trial judge dismissed the case against the other officer, saying another law, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), requires inmates suing in federal court on mistreatment claims first to exhaust all available state administrative procedures and appeals. Because Blake had not filed a grievance with the Maryland prison warden, the court held, he was not entitled to bring his mistreatment lawsuit in federal court.
On appeal, by a 2-1 vote, a three-judge panel of the Richmond-based 4th Circuit reversed the trial court and revived Blake’s lawsuit. The majority found that even though Blake had not exhausted the administrative remedies available to him, he had a reasonable belief he had done so by making a complaint that led to an internal prison investigation, and so could be excused from actually doing so, in light of those “special circumstances.”
When the state prison system, also named as a defendant in Blake’s lawsuit, brought the appellate court’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, it won a unanimous reversal. In Ross v. Blake, decided on June 6, Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the court, rejected the appellate court’s allowing “special circumstances” as a justification for failing to exhaust administrative remedies. Instead, she found PLRA’s statutory language made quite clear exhaustion was a prerequisite for an inmate’s filing a federal civil rights lawsuit.
As a result, the high court sent the lawsuit back to the district court for further consideration. Though the absence of any support in PLRA’s language led the Supreme Court to strike down the appellate court-invented “special circumstances” rationale for not requiring exhaustion of administrative remedies, the Supreme Court did direct the trial court, when it gets Blake’s lawsuit again, to look into whether other PLRA language – excusing exhaustion of administrative remedies which are not “available” to an inmate – might apply to Blake’s case.
If the trial court determines the start of an internal investigative makes it impossible for normal administrative remedies to proceed, that could mean those normal procedures were not “available” to the inmate, and therefore negate what would otherwise be the PLRA’s mandate to exhaust administrative remedies before filing a federal lawsuit over alleged mistreatment.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and https://www.prisonerresource.com