“You Must Exhaust Your Administrative Remedies.” What Does This Mean?
If you’re a prisoner and thinking of filing a lawsuit, there are a few things you should know. The Prison Litigation Reform Act put some rules in place that may make it harder to file a lawsuit. One thing the law requires is that you must exhaust your administrative remedies. Before you file, you should understand what that means and how to do it.
What is the Prison Litigation Reform Act?
The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) is a 1996 law that sets rules that prisoners have to follow to file a lawsuit. Federal courts will no longer waive certain legal fees, and you must show physical injuries before you can claim other injuries. But the biggest problem for most incarcerated people is the rule of exhaustion. The PLRA says that people in prison have to exhaust all remedies before they can file. The law itself doesn’t explain exactly what that means, but court decisions give us a pretty good idea.
One thing to remember is that the PLRA only applies to federal-court lawsuits. Since it can make the process harder for incarcerated people, many choose to file in state courts instead. Not all states have a rule about exhausting administrative remedies. They may, however, have their own specific rules that you need to understand. Before you file, you should talk with a lawyer about which option is best for you.
How can you exhaust administrative remedies?
The good news is that, while the law itself isn’t very clear, courts and groups like the ACLU have helped people understand it better. In general, you exhaust your administrative remedies by filing a grievance and pursuing all administrative appeals. To start, you have to file a grievance in prison. Without one, there’s no record of your complaint. There’s also nothing on file for administrators to remedy. If this doesn’t work, then an incarcerated person files an appeal. Only when you have appealed as high as you can in the prison without a response can you then file a lawsuit. This may mean several levels of appeals.
The thing to remember is that you can’t file a lawsuit in prison unless you’ve asked prison staff to fix the problem. If they ignore your request, you can move up the chain. And if they’re late to respond or don’t solve your problem, you can still file an appeal. Exhaustion only applies if you have appealed to everyone you can inside the prison. Then you can file a lawsuit.
The only exception to the exhaustion requirement applies if the administrative process is “unavailable” to you. A simple example of an administrative process being unavailable might be if your prison doesn’t give you access to paperwork to file a grievance. But such an obvious example is rare. It is more likely that you will argue that an administrative process is unavailable because it would have been a waste of time. These arguments are hard to make and even harder to win.
What happens if an incarcerated person does not exhaust administrative remedies?
The PLRA makes it very easy to dismiss lawsuits from incarcerated people. If you don’t exhaust all your options, the judge can dismiss your case. There’s also a rule that requires people in prison to pay all filing fees upfront if a case is dismissed three times. Before you file, make sure you have appealed to everyone you can. Checking with a lawyer about each part of the process can save you time and money.
The Prison Litigation Reform Act says that people in prison have to exhaust administrative remedies before filing a lawsuit. This means that you have to file a grievance and appeal it as high as you can inside the prison first. This is a federal law, so it doesn’t apply to state courts. Before you file a lawsuit, check with a lawyer to make sure you have correctly followed the process.
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