Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act in the mid-1990s because they wanted to curb inmate litigation. Before they bring a lawsuit, prisoners now have to file an internal grievance with the jail. Once the grievance is denied, inmates can sue in court. Once consequence of this procedure is that lawsuits are sometimes dismissed because the inmate did not exhaust his administrative remedies. That happened here. But the Court of Appeals reverses, reinstating the case.
The case is Johnson v. Killian, decided on May 16. Johnson was locked up at Otisville Correctional Institution. His Muslim prayer ritual required him to pray five times a day, but the jail said he could only do it once a day. The jail also limited where these prayers could take place. He brought an internal grievance in 2005, which the jail denied. Otisville later revised its policy. All was good for Johnson.
All was good for Johnson until 2007, when a new warden came to Otisville. He reimplemented the old policy, again limiting Johnson to one prayer a day. Bummer for Johnson! He took his case to federal court without filing a grievance. The district court threw out the case because Johnson did not file a grievance before suing in court.
The Court of Appeals (Calabresi, Cabranes and Chin) reverses and reinstates the lawsuit. What makes this so unusual is that Johnson handled his appeal pro se and defeated the United States Attorney's office. He wins the appeal because the first grievance, back in 2005, was identical to the 2007 one and therefore good enough to put the jail on notice that Johnson was aggrieved. The second grievance, two years later, was unnecessary because it would have been redundant.