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In determining whether exhaustion is required, federal courts must balance the interest of the individual in retaining prompt access to a federal judicial forum against countervailing institutional interests favoring exhaustion. Administrative remedies need not be pursued if the litigant's interests in immediate judicial review outweigh the government's interests in the efficiency or administrative autonomy that the exhaustion doctrine is designed to further. Application of this balancing principle is "intensely practical," because attention is directed to both the nature of the claim presented and the characteristics of the particular administrative procedure provided.
Petitioner John J. McCarthy filed a pro se Bivens complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas against four prison employees--the hospital administrator, two psychologists, and a physician--which complaint (1) alleged that the employees had violated the petitioner’s rights under the Federal Constitution's Eighth Amendment by their deliberate indifference to his medical and psychiatric problems, and (2) specifically stated that the petitioner sought money damages only. The District Court dismissed the complaint on the ground that the petitioner had failed to exhaust prison administrative remedies. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, affirming, ruled that exhaustion of the Bureau's grievance procedures was required before the petitioner could bring such a Bivens action, even though the procedures could not result in an award of money damages, because the exhaustion rule was not keyed to the type of relief sought but to the need for preliminary factfinding to determine whether there was a possible Bivens cause of action. Certiorari was granted.
Should a prisoner exhaust the Bureau’s grievance procedures before he could bring a Bivens action?
The Court reversed the judgment, holding that a federal prisoner need not resort to the Bureau's internal grievance procedure before initiating a Bivens action solely for money damages, because (Congress has not meaningfully addressed the appropriateness of requiring exhaustion in this context. Moreover, the Court held that the grievance procedure regulations heavily burdened the individual interests of the petitioning inmate by imposing short, successive filing deadlines that create a high risk of forfeiture of a claim for failure to comply, and not authorizing an award of monetary damages. The Court held that the interests of the Bureau did not weigh heavily in favor of exhaustion in view of the remedial scheme and particular claim presented, since, while the Bureau has a substantial interest in encouraging internal resolution of grievances and preventing the undermining of its authority by unnecessary resort of prisoners to the federal courts, the Bureau's alleged failure to render medical care in the case at hand implicated only tangentially the Bureau's authority to control and manage the federal prisons, and the grievance procedure did not substantially advance the interests of judicial economy, given that no formal fact-findings were made and no formal factual record of an appropriate type was created.