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Ross v. Blake

Supreme Court of the United States

March 29, 2016, Argued; June 6, 2016, Decided

No. 15-339


JUSTICE Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA) mandates that an inmate exhaust “such administrative remedies as  [*1855]  are available” before bringing suit to challenge prison conditions. 42 U.S.C. §1997e(a). The court below adopted an unwritten “special circumstances” exception to that provision, permitting some prisoners to pursue litigation even when they have failed to exhaust available administrative remedies. Today, we reject that freewheeling approach to exhaustion [***7]  as inconsistent with the PLRA. But we also underscore that statute’s built-in exception to the exhaustion requirement: A prisoner need not exhaust remedies if they are not “available.” The briefs and other submissions filed in this case suggest the possibility that the aggrieved inmate lacked an available administrative remedy. That issue remains open for consideration on remand, in light of the principles stated below.

Respondent Shaidon Blake is an inmate in a Maryland prison. On June 21, 2007, two guards — James Madigan and petitioner Michael Ross — undertook to move him from his regular cell to the facility’s segregation unit. According to Blake’s version of the facts, Ross handcuffed him and held him by the arm as they left the cell; Madigan followed close behind. Near the top of a flight of stairs, Madigan shoved Blake in the back. Ross told Madigan he had Blake under control, and the three continued walking. At the bottom of the stairs, Madigan pushed Blake again and then punched him four times in the face, driving his head into the wall. After a brief pause, Madigan hit Blake one last time. Ross kept hold of Blake throughout the assault. And when the blows subsided, Ross helped [***8]  Madigan pin Blake to the ground until additional officers arrived.

Later that day, Blake reported the assault to a senior corrections officer. That officer thought Madigan at fault, and so referred the incident to the Maryland prison system’s Internal Investigative Unit (IIU). Under state law, the IIU has authority to investigate allegations of employee misconduct, including the use of “excessive force.” Code of Md. Regs., tit. 12, §11.01.05(A)(3) (2006). After conducting a year-long inquiry into the beating, the IIU issued a final report condemning Madigan’s actions, while making no findings with respect to Ross. See App. 191-195. Madigan resigned to avoid being fired.

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136 S. Ct. 1850 *; 195 L. Ed. 2d 117 **; 2016 U.S. LEXIS 3614 ***; 84 U.S.L.W. 4352; 26 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 205


Notice: The LEXIS pagination of this document is subject to change pending release of the final published version.


Blake v. Ross, 787 F.3d 693, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 8383 (4th Cir. Md., 2015)

Disposition: 787 F. 3d 693, vacated and remanded.


exhaustion, inmate, grievance, mandatory, Handbook, unavailable

Civil Rights Law, Prisoner Rights, Prison Litigation Reform Act, Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies, Governments, Legislation, Interpretation, Effect & Operation, Amendments