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Exhausting Administrative Remedies for Prisoner

The following summary is of an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit from a prisoner in Oregon.  The federal appellate court’s ruling applies to prisoners in California prisons, as both Oregon and California are under the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit.

Aaron Dale Eaton is an adult in custody (AIC) at the Two Rivers Correctional Institution (TRCI) in Oregon.

Under the umbrella of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), correctional authorities can establish and enforce reasonable regulations that balance safety and security concerns with prisoner access to mail and the ability of inmates to express grievances and concerns.

TRCI has regulations that limit inmates to having no more than four grievances pending at the same time, each of which must be limited to a specific event.  For example, repeated events involving the same subject matter must be separately grieved.  Due to safety concerns, prison officials placed a ban on inmate receipt of postage prepaid mail inserts. 

With these rules in place, prison officials confiscated an envelope with prepaid postage that Eaton received from a law firm along with a form that, according to Easton, would have allowed him to submit a claim by filling out a questionnaire in an ongoing bankruptcy proceeding involving the Boy Scouts of America.  Prison officers later concluded that the enclosure was perfectly appropriate legal mail which Eaton should have received. 

Unfortunately, however, this was done only after expiration of the opportunity for Eaton to submit a claim in the bankruptcy proceeding and ultimately participate in a settlement for sexual abuse survivors. 

When Eaton attempted to complain, he was told he was at the four-grievance limit and the only way to pursue the mail-related grievance would have been to dismiss one of his earlier grievances, which would forfeit any relief for the claim underlying the dismissed grievance.

This presented Eaton a “Catch-22” dilemma from which there is no escape, one in which the only solution is denied in a circumstance inherent in the problem.

Under the applicable regulations, Eaton needed to follow a grievance process consisting of three levels – the initial grievance, the initial appeal and the final appeal – each of which are subject to specific deadlines.

Eaton filed his mail-related grievance on July 27, 2020 – the same day he received notice of the confiscation and well within the 14-day deadline for grieving the action.  However, at the time, Eaton already had four other grievances pending at the time, the maximum allowed by prison regulations.  So, Eaton’s mail-related grievance was returned to him with an explanation that the grievance exceeded his limit.  Eaton attempted to appeal this and the prison returned his appeal with a similar note.

In the meantime, the deadline to submit a claim to the Boy Scouts of America expired and Eaton lost the chance to see if he qualified for participation in the settlement negotiations.

Eaton then turned to federal court, filing a civil rights claim against T. Blewtt, the Two Rivers Correctional Institution Superintendent and others at the prison (Aaron Dale Eaton v. T. Blewett, et al.), alleging violation of 28 U.S.C. § 1983 in depriving him of his First Amendment rights.

The District Court determined that Eaton stated a cognizable First Amendment claim but granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the basis that Eaton had not exhausted the available administrative remedies as required by the PLRA, which requires prisoners to exhaust “such administrative remedies as are available” before filing suit in federal court. 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). 

Eaton then appealed this ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which reversed in favor of Eaton, finding that Eaton had complied with the PLRA because the administrative remedies he needed to exhaust simply were not available to him because of the prison’s four-grievance limit.  Such a limit imposed by the prison should not bar claims from being heard in federal court, the Ninth Circuit ruled.

We find this ruling reassuring, but caution that this ruling should not be regarded as allowing prisoners a clever “end-run” around any grievance limit by converting any grievance in excess of the prison limit into a federal civil rights claim.

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