Thomas Grouses on Circuit Split as High Court Advances Inmate Suit

The U.S. Supreme Court. (Courthouse News photo/Jack Rodgers)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Justice Clarence Thomas balked Monday as the Supreme Court sidestepped a circuit divide on what to do with lawsuits by inmates who have fumbled the administrative-remedy stage.

“In recent years, nearly 10,000 lawsuits have been filed annually by prisoners challenging prison conditions,” Thomas wrote. “And nearly twice as many lawsuits are filed annually raising other civil rights claims, which are subject to similarly worded pre-filing requirements under the PLRA.”

Short for the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, the PLRA mandates that prisoners filing claims against prison employees complete the administrative grievance process “as a precondition to bringing suit in federal court.” 

Thomas notes that four of the U.S. Courts of Appeals are evenly divided, however, when it comes to what extent the PLRA’s prefiling requirements applies to former inmates.

In the case here, Kareem Garrett’s 2014 lawsuit was initially thrown out for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Garrett was imprisoned at the time at a state prison in Houtzdale, Pennsylvania, where he claimed pro se that prison staff had violated his civil rights by forbidding him use of a walker or wheelchair, discontinuing his “psych” medication, and conducting a rectal exam without his consent.

Some nine months after Garrett was released from prison on May 19, 2015, however, the District Court gave him leave to file amend his suit. Again this suit was tossed under the prefiling requirement, but the Third Circuit reversed last year, saying Garrett’s release obviated the prefiling hurdle.

While the Ninth Circuit has reached a similar conclusion, the Fifth, Sixth and 11th Circuits have all rejected that exception.

Wexford Health Sources and the various prison medical staffers whom Garrett wanted a reversal, but the Supreme Court denied them a writ of certiorari Monday.

Per the court’s custom, the justices did not comment on why they rejected the case. Thomas complained in a dissent meanwhile that he would have granted cert.

“I see no reason to allow certain prisoners in the Third and Ninth Circuits to proceed unencumbered by the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement while those in the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits are required to comply,” Thomas wrote.

Michael James Bentley, a lawyer for the petitioners with the firm Bradley Arant in Jackson, Mississippi, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Dechert attorney Michael McGinley, who represents Garrett, also did not respond to a request for comment.

The court did not otherwise include any grants in its Monday order list.

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