PLRA Failure to Exhaust Excused in Split Opinion

Ordinarily a litigant is not required to exhaust administrative remedies before filing a civil rights lawsuit.  Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, prisoners must first complain to the prison before filing a lawsuit.  Rarely is a failure to comply with the PLRA excused.

In Nunex v. Dr. Duncan (here), a split panel excused a failure to technically exhaust in a weird set of facts.  The prisoner filed a grievance.  The warden did two things.  First, he denied the prisoner's request for relief.  Second, he warden (in good faith) answered the prisoner's grievance by referencing some obscure document.

In order to exhaust remedies before filing suit, the prisoner needed to appeal the warden's ruling.  The prisoner thought he needed to obtain the obscure document to proceed.   While the prisoner diligently attempted to obtain the document, his time for appealing the warden's ruling passed him by.

The panel held, sensibly, that the prisoner had complied with the PLRA.  The dissenter threw a fit.  Even though the failure to exhaust was the warden's fault, the prisoner should suffer.  Look, I hate convicts as much as the next person.  But...Seriously?  You can't send a guy on a wild goose chase, and then blame him when he doesn't come back with any geese!

PLRA cases tend to anger people.  The same people who slept through Civil Procedure and never even took Federal Courts become fascinated with proceduralism when it means putting the thumb screws to prisoners.  Thus, Nunex might go en banc, even though it's a pretty boring issue.

P.S.  Congratulations to Banurekha Ramachandran winning the appeal.  (No personal relationship with her, but she took the case pro bono, and thus deserves recognition.)