High Court Blocks Suit|Against Prison Guard

     WASHINGTON (CN) — Civil claims by a beaten inmate led the Supreme Court on Monday to curb what it called a “freewheeling approach” to prison-litigation procedure.
     Shaidon Blake had been in prison for two months after his 2007 conviction for a gang-related murder when he says the guards moving him to a segregation unit physically assaulted him without cause.
     The Internal Investigative Unit of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spent a year looking into Blake’s report of the incident, and ultimately found that guard James Madigan had used excessive force against Blake by punching him in the face while he was handcuffed.
     Blake says another guard, Michael Ross, held him down while Madigan assaulted him, but the inmate prevailed only against Madigan at trial.
     Ross ducked liability by raising a requirement of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 as a defense.
     This law forces inmates to exhaust all available administrative remedies before challenging prison conditions in court, but Blake thought the year-long investigation satisfied the requirement.
     Though a federal judge sided with Ross, the Fourth Circuit revived Blake’s claims against the guard on the basis that the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement “is not absolute.”
     The Supreme Court took up in December 2015 and vacated that holding today, taking issue with the “unwritten ‘special circumstances’ exception” that is says lets some prisoners pursue litigation without completing administrative hurdles.
     “Today, we reject that freewheeling approach to exhaustion as inconsistent with the PLRA,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the mostly unanimous court.
     Blake’s may yet be viable, Kagan emphasized, since it remains unknown whether there was an administrative remedy available.
     This issue must be explored on remand.
     One situation where exhaustion is not required is where “an administrative scheme might be so opaque that it becomes, practically speaking, incapable of use,” Kagan said.
     “In this situation, some mechanism exists to provide relief, but no ordinary prisoner can discern or navigate it,” the decision continues.
     Kagan also too issue with situations “when prison administrators thwart inmates from taking advantage of a grievance process through machination, misrepresentation, or intimidation.”
     Though five justices joined Kagan’s opinion in full, two wrote separate opinions concurring in part.
     “Perhaps Blake’s newfound documents are subject to judicial notice as public records,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote. “But I would not take such notice for the first time in this court. It appears that Blake had a chance to submit many of his documents to the lower courts and failed to do so. Taking notice of the documents encourages gamesmanship and frustrates our review. I would let the Court of Appeals decide on remand whether to supplement the record, or take notice of Blake’s lodgings.”
     Justice Stephen Breyer meanwhile quoted one of his concurrences from 2006, which says “Congress intended the term ‘exhausted’ to ‘mean what the term means in administrative law, where exhaustion means proper exhaustion.'”
     “Though that statutory term does not encompass ‘freewheeling’ exceptions for any ‘special circumstance,’ it does include administrative law’s ‘well-established exceptions to exhaustion,'” Breyer added. “I believe that such exceptions, though not necessary to the court’s disposition of this case, may nevertheless apply where appropriate.”

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