Congress has made it so hard for inmates to bring lawsuits that it's a wonder that they even win their cases anymore. But some do, and occasionally the federal courts find ways to minimize the rigid filing requirements that inmates must navigate.
The case is Hill v. Curcione, decided on September 15. This case shows the difficulties of winning an inmate case on the merits, but it also shows that he Court of Appeals will bend the rules a little for the inmates. Hill was at the Niagara County Jail. He suffered an injury when some guards put the handcuffs on too tight, causing some numbness and much pain. He was given Motrin, which didn't kill the pain, and Hill asked for a nerve conduction study. Under the jail's rules, he filed a grievance over the handcuffs. He sues over the excessive force and also challenges the medical treatment.
The medical treatment claim dies instantly. Inmates have to show deliberate indifference to their serious medical needs. This is a difficult standard to meet. Hill cannot satisfy it. The lawsuit says he was denied the right pain medication and the nerve study, but "there is no indication in the complaint that any medical provider recommended treatment different from the treatment that Hill was afforded," the Court of Appeals (Miner, Cabranes and Straub) says. Nor does Hill allege that the jail staff acted with the "culpable state of mind," i.e., deliberate indifference. As the courts see it, cases like this are actually challenging good-faith medical judgment in the jails, not deliberate indifference. The case fails.
But Hill does prevail on another issue. In order to bring a lawsuit for assault or anything else that happens in the jail, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) requires inmates to bring an in-house grievance within a certain time frame: in this case, five days from the incident and, if the grievance is denied, you have two days to appeal to the jail's chief administrative officer. This of course is all academic, since inmates rarely win their grievances. But grieve they must. While Hill's grievance was untimely, the jail's grievance guy entertained it and denied it on the merits, not because it was untimely. The Second Circuit adopts the rule that other Circuit courts have followed: "a late filing that is accepted and decided on the merits fulfills the exhaustion requirement of the PLRA." This rule allows for the reality that some institutions waive their procedural defenses. Hill's assault claim in federal court is reinstated. A nice ruling by the Second Circuit, but you can bet that in the future, jails will not entertain untimely inmate grievances on the merits; they will reject them as untimely.