Under the Prisoners Litigation Reform Act, inmates cannot file suit unless they first bring an internal grievance over their prison conditions. That requirement was adopted to reduce the number of inmate lawsuits on the theory that an internal grievance might resolve the inmate's issues. But the requirement also has led to additional litigation over whether the inmate properly filed (or failed to file) a grievance in the first instance. This is one of those cases.
The case is Rucker v. Griffen, issued on May 6. Plaintiff was in the county jail. He claims he was denied proper medical treatment after he was ignored for days (and otherwise given lousy medical care) despite complaining about extreme pain, dizziness, nausea, dehydration and weakness. He would up in the hospital, where he was in and out of consciousness and eventually had surgery after medical professionals determined he had diabetic ketoacidosis.
About two weeks after he initially began complaining about his ill health at the jail, plaintiff filed a grievance and, later on, this lawsuit. The district court dismissed the case because plaintiff did not file the grievance within the five-day window, as per the jail's rules and procedures. Instead, he filed the grievance almost a year after his hospitalization.
The Court of Appeals (Leval, Cabranes and Menashi) reverses. In Ross v. Blake, 136 S.Ct. 1850 (2016), the Supreme Court said the failure to exhaust administrative remedies cannot count against the inmate if (1) officers did not provide any relieve to aggrieved inmates, (2) the process was too opaque that it was incapable of use, or (3) prison administrators thwarted inmates from taking advantage of the grievance process through misrepresentation, machination, etc. Plaintiff wins the appeal, and the case is reinstated, because during the five days when he was supposed to file the grievance, his severe medical condition prevented him from doing so, and jail officials said they would not process his late grievance because it was filed outside the deadline. As the Court of Appeals sees it, the grievance process was not available to plaintiff, and his failure to timely file it may be excused, and he can proceed with this lawsuit. The fact that plaintiff filed the grievance almost a year later doesn't matter, as the jail said it would not process the grievance once plaintiff missed the five-day deadline.