Monday, February 2, 2009

Inmate grievance was good enough for follow-up lawsuit

In the mid-1990's, Congress made it harder for inmates to bring civil rights lawsuits. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, inmates have to first file an internal grievance with jail authorities before they bring a lawsuit. Of course, every new rule raises more questions. This time around, the question is: How specific does the internal grievance have to be?

The case is Espinal v. Goord, decided on February 2. The trial court dismissed Espinal's case because his written grievance did not identify the corrections officers who allegedly subjected him to excessive force and denied him necessary medical treatment. The Court of Appeals reinstated the Complaint thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling which clarifies whether the grievances are properly drafted.

The PLRA exhaustion requirement “applies to all inmate suits about prison life, whether they involve general circumstances or particular episodes, and whether they allege excessive force or some other wrong.” The Supreme Court said this in Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 532 (2002). Then, in Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199 (2007), the Supreme Court said that the prison's regulations govern whether the inmate has to name the officers who violated his rights.

Since Espinal did not name the officers in his grievance, the district court dismissed the case. But, under Jones v. Bock, we now look to the state's regulations for the right answer. Since, as the Court of Appeals notes, "The New York . . . regulations do not state that a prisoner’s grievance must name the responsible party," Espinal did not do anything wrong, as the regulations only require “a concise, specific description of the problem.” The Complaint is reinstated, as the grievances were enough to place jail officials on notice of his allegations and they could therefore investigate them.

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