As many advocates know, litigating prisoner rights can be complicated, with regulations like the Prison Reform Litigation Act, among others, standing in the way of justice. However, with two recent Supreme Court decisions, the path may have just gotten a bit easier.
First, in Simmons v. Himmelreich, the Court, in a unanimous decision, held that the judgment bar provision of the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) does not apply to suits that are dismissed for falling within one FTCA exceptions. This means, in the case of Walter Himmelreich, that a prisoner may still bring a constitutional tort claim against individual prison officials even if a court dismissed a prior FTCA suit because the officials were exercising a “discretionary function “in the incident.
While incarcerated for producing child pornography, Himmelreich was assaulted by a fellow inmate. Prior to the assault, his attacker warned prison officials that, if given an opportunity, he would “smash “a pedophile. Despite this, prison officials still housed the attacker in the prison’s general population, with Himmelreich and ultimately creating opportunity for his assault.
Himmelreich filed two suits alleging violations of his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment after he was severely beaten by a fellow inmate. The first, against the United States, was treated as a FTCA claim, which the Government then moved to dismiss based on the “discretionary function “exceptionthe FTCA exempts “[a]ny claim based upon … the exercise or performance … [of] a discretionary function. “In this case, the prison officials’ decision on where to house inmates was considered a discretionary function, therefore the District Court granted the motion to dismiss.
While the FTCA suit was still pending, Himmelreich filed his second suit a constitutional tort suit against the individual prison officials. Once the FTCA suit was dismissed, the defendant officials argued that the judgment bar provision of the FTCA applied, which therefore prevented Himmelreich’s second suit. In short, if a plaintiff receives a judgment in a FTCA suit, then, under the judgment bar provision, the plaintiff cannot proceed with another suit based on the same underlying facts against individual employees. Accordingly, the defendants argued, since the FTCA claim was dismissed, Himmelreich’s suit against the individual officials was also prevented. Agreeing, the District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the prison officials.
Thankfully the Supreme Court agreed instead with Himmelreich, who argued that the plain language of the judgment bar provision indicated that it did not apply to suits that were dismissed because of an exceptionjust as Himmelreich’s first suit was because of the discretionary function exception.
The second big win came in the Supreme Court’s decision in Ross v. Blake, which held that a prisoner may bring a lawsuit without first fulfilling the Prison Litigation Reform Act’s (PLRA) exhaustion requirement, if the prisoner could not truly first raise his claim through internal administrative channels. Although the Court also rejected the Fourth Circuit’s “special circumstances “exception to the PLRA, this is a big win for prisoners because failing to meet the exhaustion requirement is a common bar for prisoner suits.
Shaidon Blake, an inmate, was assaulted by a prison official, James Madigan, while being transferred to the segregation unit of the prison by Madigan and another officer. Blake reported the assault to another official, who then referred the incident to the Maryland prison system’s Internal Investigative Unit (IIU), which wrote a report condemning Madigan’s actions.
Blake subsequently filed a §1983 civil rights suit against both officers alleging excessive force and failure to take protective action. The non-assaulting officerMichael Rossraised the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement as an affirmative defense, arguing that Blake failed to follow the prison’s procedures for an administrative remedy. Blake countered that the IIU investigation was considered a substitute for following those procedures. Although the District Court dismissed the suit agreeing with Ross, the Fourth Circuit applied the “special circumstances “exception.
Writing for the Court, Justice Kagan highlighted that the requirement to exhaust administrative remedies is contingent on those remedies actually being available. Therefore, if a prisoner must exhaust available remedies, the converse must be that if there are no available remedies, a prisoner does not have an obligation to exhaust those unavailable ones. And, although the Court remanded the case to the Fourth Circuit to answer, if administrative remedies were in fact not available to Blake, then he couldn’t have failed to exhaust.
So, why are these two holdings such a win? Well, with all the obstacles prisoners face, the Himmelreich holding preserves prisoners’ constitutional claims against individual prison officials, and the Blake holding allows prisoners to bring a suit even if the administrative exhaustion requirement of the PLRA has not been metwhich both lead to better enforcement of prisoners’ civil rights, an area of law Gerhardstein and Branch, LLC is committed to.
Authored by Silvia Arieira, University of Cincinnati Law Student, and Gerhardstein & Branch Law Clerk