Inmates can no longer just run to court when something bad happens inside the jail. They have to file an internal grievance first. After that grievance is ignored or thrown away, they can then file suit in federal court. This results from a law that Congress passed during the Clinton presidency. The law was intended to reduce the number of inmate lawsuits. But courts are still figuring out how it all works.
The case is Williams v. Priatno, decided on July 12. This guy was jailed at Downstate Correctional Facility. He says the prison guards kicked the hell out of him. Under the grievance procedures in the federal system, you not only grieve bad food or other uncomfortable occurrences but your beatings. Think about that for a minute ("I would like to file a grievance about my beating"). Williams asked a correction officer to file the grievance on his behalf. The problem here was that the jail says the CO never filed that grievance for Williams. The jail's grievance rules were not a model of clarity regarding how to file an internal appeal of your grievances once the jail denies them at the first level. Rather, the Court of Appeals says, "the regulations only contemplate appeals of grievances that were actually filed. ... The regulations give no guidance whatsoever to an inmate whose grievance was never filed." Williams argues that even if the CO did not file the grievance for him, that omission cannot be held against him because the rules are too opaque with respect to his obligation to file an appeal of any grievance denial.
In 2004, the Second Circuit issued a series of rulings that interpreted the 1996 law that addressed inmate grievances. The leading case in this trilogy, Hemphill, said we consider whether administrative remedies inside the jail were available to the inmate. We then consider whether the jail forfeited the affirmative defense of exhaustion by failing to preserve it in litigation or their own actions in the jail made it impossible for the inmate to exhaust internal remedies. The third factor under Hemphill asks whether any special circumstances would excuse the inmate from having filed an internal grievance. But in 2016, the Supreme Court in Ross v. Blake, 136 S. Ct. 1850, essentially rejected the "special circumstances" rule, so that part of Hemphill is overruled.
Still, Williams can win the appeal and proceed with his lawsuit, the Second Circuit says, if the "regulatory scheme providing for the [grievance] appeal is so opaque and so confusing that no reasonable prisoner can use it." The Circuit draws that language from the Ross decision. That exception applies here. The rules at Downstate were not clear on how to appeal or exhaust internal administrative remedies, which normally must be exhausted before you can sue in court. As the regulations "do not describe a mechanism for appealing a grievance that was never filed," and the options offered by the State in defending itself on appeal are too confusing, Williams's case is reinstated and he can litigate his excessive force claim in court.