Second Circuit Brings Clarity to Exhaustion Requirement Under the PLRA
In 2019. PLS appeared as Amicus Curiae (friend of the court) in Dickinson v. Warren County Sheriff and Hayes v. T. Dahkle et. al., two cases that involved the issue of what constitutes exhaustion under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).
The facts in the cases involved the plaintiffs appealing the denials of their grievances to the highest level, but not receiving final decisions on any of their grievances within the regulatory time limit. The plaintiffs filed 1983 claims after the deadline for issuing a final decision had passed, but before receiving final grievance decisions. In response, the Defendants moved to dismiss on the grounds that both plaintiffs had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies as required under the PLRA. Plaintiffs lost in the district court and appealed to the Second Circuit.
Given PLS’ and the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project (PRP) familiarity with both the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) and their Central Office Review Committee’s (CORC) longstanding practice of issuing final grievance decisions well beyond their own regulatory deadline, PLS and PRP prepared an Amicus submission for the Second Circuit.
In preparation for the Amicus submission, we polled PLS staff attorneys regarding CORC delays they had observed in their cases. We collated this data was collated into a chart together data on CORC delays that was available in the District Court case law of the Second Circuit. We also reviewed data available online from DOCCS own grievance program reports, published from 2009 to 2013. Taken together, we ascertained that all three data sets demonstrated the same trend – the CORC began regularly failing to meet its own regulatory deadline to issue final decisions in 2010 and, these delays have grown steadily worse over time. Currently, delays of over a year are a regular occurrence.
In addition, drawing from recent Circuit and Supreme Court case law, we argued that since there is no administrative mechanism for a prisoner to address or otherwise compel the CORC into action once their deadline to render a decision has passed, exhaustion is complete at that point. Finally, we concluded that adopting a bright line rule, that exhaustion is complete once a grievance has been timely appealed to a final grievance body and that body’s time to render a decision has passed, facilitates judicial manageability.
The Second Circuit granted our motions requesting permission to submit the Amicus briefs and on February 26, 2020 oral arguments were conducted.
In October 2020 the Second Circuit decided both Hayes and Dickinson jointly. Regarding the Amicus brief, the Court agreed with our position entirely and adopted a bright-line rule that incarcerated individuals have exhausted their administrative remedies under the PLRA once they have appealed to the CORC and the CORC’s time limit to render a decision has expired, regardless of whether the CORC issues a decision. This brings clarity to an issue of significant confusion for incarcerated persons, many of whom have previously had to wait months for the CORC to render decisions on their grievance appeals