Order Code RS22617
March 6, 2007
Supreme Court Decision in Jones v. Bock:
Exhaustion Requirements under the Prison
Litigation Reform Act
Paul Starett Wallace, Jr.
Specialist in American Public Law
American Law Division
Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) to help reduce the strain
on the federal judicial system of extensive inmate litigation. The act mandated
exhaustion of federal and state administrative remedies before an inmate could file a
civil rights action. The Sixth Circuit along with some other lower courts adopted
several procedural rules designed to implement this exhaustion requirement and
facilitate early judicial screening. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the
conflict in Jones v. Bock, and two other consolidated cases, namely: Walton v.
Bouchard, and Williams v. Overton, which it unanimously decided that failure to
exhaust prison grievance procedures is an affirmative defense, thereby rejecting the
Court of Appeals’ procedural rules as exceeding the proper limits of the judical role.
The issues in these cases were: (1) whether the PLRA prescribes “total exhaustion” that
requires a federal court to dismiss a prisoner’s federal civil rights complaint for failure
to exhaust his administrative remedies whenever there is a single unexhausted claim,
despite the presence of other exhausted claims; (2) whether the PLRA requires a
prisoner to name a particular defendant in his or her administrative grievance in order
to exhaust his or her administrative remedies as to that defendant and to preserve his or
her right to sue them; and (3) whether satisfaction of the PLRA’s exhaustion
requirement is a prerequisite to a prisoner’s federal civil rights suit such that the prisoner
must allege and document in his complaint how he exhausted his administrative
remedies, or instead, whether non-exhaustion is an affirmative defense that must be pled
and proved by the defense. The Supreme Court decided these three issues on January
22, 2007 in favor of inmate litigants, rejecting various exhaustion screening mechanisms
adopted by some of the circuits and thus making it less difficult for inmates/plaintiffs
to pursue lawsuits involving complaints about their treatment in prison. It remains to be
seen what impact this will have on the workload of the federal courts which already
consists of tens of thousands of inmate civil rights cases a year.
Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) in 1996 in response to
a significant increase in prisoner litigation in the federal courts;1 the PLRA was designed
to help unclog the court system from this litigation.2 One of the ways Congress tried to
do this was by setting up an “exhaustion” requirement. Before prisoners may challenge
a condition of their confinement in federal court, the PLRA requires them to first exhaust
available administrative remedies by pursuing to completion whatever inmate grievance
and/or appeal procedures their prison custodians provide.3
Petitioners, each in the custody of the Michigan Department of Corrections
(MDOC), pursued their grievances at each level of the MDOC’s grievance system and
received final decisions denying their grievances.4 Jones, who had previously sustained
back injuries, was assigned to perform physical labor over his objections. Alleging he had
aggravated his back injury as a consequence, he filed a grievance against the officer who
assigned him to the job and the officer who, despite his objections required him to
perform the task. His subsequent suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983 also named the warden, a
deputy warden, and prison medical personnel. Williams was denied surgical treatment
of a painful, disfiguring condition and also denied a handicapped cell. His section 1983
complaint covering both denials and his earlier cell accommodation grievance identified
prison and medical personnel by name; his earlier surgical grievance did not. Walton
challenged the racial impartiality of disciplinary action taken against him and sued several
named prison officials, although he had only named one in his unsuccessful grievances.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, held that the petitioners’ federal civil rights
complaints must be dismissed in their entirety because they failed to satisfy certain extrastatutory rules that, according to the Court of Appeals, the PLRA’s exhaustion mandate
requires.5 Specifically the Court of Appeals held that to satisfy the PLRA’s exhaustion
requirement, prisoners must (1) either specifically allege in their complaints how and
when they exhausted their administrative remedies or attach to their complaints proof of
exhaustion, (2) have identified each individual in their initial administrative grievance
whom they later name as a defendant in their subsequent civil rights complaints, and (3)
not join in their complaints any unexhausted claims or defendants not named in their
initial grievances with exhausted claims or defendants, lest their complaints be dismissed
in their entirety.6
P.L. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321 (2006); 42 U.S.C. § 1997e (1994 ed. & Supp. II).
Woodford v. Ngo, 126 S. Ct. 2378, 2382 (2006) (Congress enacted the PLRA in 1996 in
response to a significant increase in prisoner litigation in the federal court. To accomplish this
goal, Congress included a “variety of provisions” in the PLRA, a “centerpiece” of which “is an
‘invigorated’ exhaustion provision, § 1997e(a).”
“No action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 of this title,
or any other Federal law, by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility
until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.” 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a).
For a more extensive discussion of the background described below, see CRS Report RS22539,
Prison Litigation Reform Act in the Supreme Court’s 2006 Term, by Paul Starett Wallace, Jr.
Jones v. Bock, 135 Fed.Appx. 837 (6th Cir. 2005); Williams v. Overton, 136 Fed.Appx. 859 (6th
Cir. 2005); Walton v. Bouchard, 136 Fed.Appx. 846 (6th Cir. 2005).
The lower courts had disagreed on various aspects of the PLRA exhaustion
provision, and the Court was asked to decide these issues. It granted certiorari in the three
cases on a consolidated basis in order to do so.7
First, there was the question of whether it’s the prisoner’s burden, in filing a lawsuit,
to plead and show that they have exhausted the prison grievance procedures, or whether
exhaustion is an affirmative defense that the accused prison officials can raise later. The
Sixth Circuit, and some other lower courts, had held that the burden was on the prisoner
to plead and demonstrate exhaustion.8 The requirement would allow the court, without
considering the merits or requiring prison officials to respond, to refuse to accept a filing
that on its face failed to demonstrate that it was ripe for adjudication.
Second, there was the issue of how much a prisoner must do to properly exhaust their
claims in the prison grievance procedures. Specifically, the Sixth Circuit and some of the
other courts had held that any party named as a defendant in the lawsuit must have been
named in the prison grievance process from the very beginning; otherwise, the case must
be thrown out.9 Other courts were more liberal on this issue.10
Third, there was the issue of what to do when a prisoner’s petition includes some
claims that have been exhausted and others have not. The Sixth Circuit had held that if
even one claim were not exhausted, the whole case had to be dismissed.11 Others were
more liberal, allowing the case to move forward or allowing the complaint to be amended
so that the unexhausted claims were removed.12
On January 22, 2007, in a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts,
the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and delivered a
Jones v. Bock (05-7058), cert. granted, 126 S.Ct. 1462 (2006); Walton v. Bouchard, and William
v. Overton (05-7142), cert. granted, 126 S.Ct. 1463 (2006).
Bey v. Johnson, 407 F.3d 801, 805 (6th Cir. 2005); Fitzgerald v. Corrections Corp., 403 F.3d
1134 (10th Cir.) 2005); contra, Handberry v. Thompson, 446 F.3d 335, 342 (2d Cir. 2006);
Westefer v. Snyder, 422 F.3d 570, 577 (7th Cir. 2005); Brown v. Valoff, 422 F.3d 926, 9356 (9th
Cir. 2005); Anderson v. XYZ Correctional Health Services, Inc., 407 F.3d 674, 678-81 (4th Cir.
2005); Nerness v. Johnson, 401 F.3d 874, 876 (8th Cir. 2005); Brown v. Croak, 312 F.3d 109, 112
(3d Cir. 2002).
Burton v. Jones, 321 F.3d 569, 575 (6th Cir. 2003); accord, Abdul-Muhammad v. Kempker, 450
F.3d 350-351-52 (8th Cir. 2006).
Kikumura v. Osagie, 461 F.3d 1269, 1282-284(10th Cir. 2006); Johnson v. Testman, 380 F.3d
691, 697 (2d Cir. 2004); Strong v. David, 297 F.3d 646, 650 (7th Cir. 2002).
Bey v. Johnson, 407 F.3d 801, 809 (6th Cir. 2005); accord, Graves v. Norris, 218 F.3d 884, 885
(8 Cir. 2006); Ross v. County of Bernalillo, 365 F.3d 1181, 1190 (10th Cir. 2004).
Ortiz v. McBride, 380 F.3d 649, 656 (2d Cir. 2004); Spenser v. Bouchard, 449 F.3d 721,726
(6th Cir. 2006)(holding that Bey had overlooked an earlier, binding precedent that permitted
partial exhaustion); Lira v. Herrera, 427 F.3d 1164, 1175-176 (9th Cir. 2005); Kikumura v.
Osagie, 461 F.3d 1269, 1289 (10th Cir. 2006). The Court had previously approved a similar
approach relating to the exhaustion requirement in habeas cases, see Rhines v. Weber, 544 U.S.
269, 278 (2005).
decision which supported the three Michigan inmates,13 thus making it less difficult for
them to pursue lawsuits involving complaints about their treatment in prison.
Affirmative Defense. The Court decided that the Sixth Circuit and its minority
rule of placing the burden on the prisoner/plaintiff, was not correct. The Federal Rules
of Civil Procedure 8(a) only requires a plaintiff to include, in their complaint, a “short and
plain statement of the claim.”14 And since the PLRA is not generally the actual source of
a prisoner’s claim, there is no reason a prisoner should have to include PLRA
requirements in his/her complaint–or more simply, whether or not the prisoner met the
exhaustion requirement is not part of their claim.15 What the Sixth Circuit did was
tantamount to creating a heightened pleading standard, and the Court did not look
favorably upon this practice.16 Additionally, in other instances, courts generally find that
issues of “exhaustion” are affirmative defenses to be raised by the defendant, and
therefore, why would it be different in these situations.17
The Sixth Circuit had also based its reasoning on another requirement of the PLRA,
which states that courts must conduct early judicial screening of prisoner cases, to weed
out the ones that should not be there.18 Therefore, the Sixth Circuit was of the opinion
that making the plaintiff/prisoner plead exhaustion helped this process, because the court
can quickly review the complaint and know whether there has been exhaustion and
whether the case can remain or be dismissed.19 However, the Court ruled that the Sixth
Circuit was in error here too, because there is no indication that Congress intended for the
screening to be done by changing exhaustion from an affirmative defense.20
Defendants Named. The Court noted that the PLRA simply demands that
prisoners exhaust whatever administrative remedies are available.21 It says nothing which
would require that all defendants be named from the beginning.22 The Court pointed out
that this may not be possible in some instances, i.e., where for example, the identity of
the responsible prison official is not discovered until well into the grievance process.23
Also, in this case, the Michigan Department of Corrections’ policy did not have any
provision requiring all defendants to be named in the grievance.24 It just required that the
prisoner to “be as specific as possible as well as “[b]e brief and concise” and that is what
Jones v. Bock, 127 S.Ct. 910, 914 (2007).
Id. at 919.
Id. at 920.
Id. at 920-921.
Id. at 920.
Id. at 921.
Id. at 922.
Id. at 922.
took place here.25 More specifically, the grievance forms call for the identification of the
official responsible to respond to the grievance, rather than that of any officials whose
conduct provides the basis for the grievance. Thus, the petitioner/prisoner did not
wrongfully use the state’s grievance process by not naming someone as a defendant until
later in the grievance process.26
Total Exhaustion. The Court decided that the PLRA does not require dismissing
the entire lawsuit when an inmate fails to exhaust some of the inmate’s claims
administratively. The PLRA provides that “no action shall be brought” until there has
been exhaustion which the Sixth Circuit interpreted it to mean that the whole complaint
had to be exhausted; otherwise if Congress intended courts to dismiss only unexhausted
claims while retaining the balance of the lawsuit, the word “claim” rather than “action”
would have been used in this section.27 The Court said this reasoning is not practical
since the statutory phrase “no action shall be brought” is nothing more than boilerplate
language, which is used throughout the Federal Code and generally refers to claims rather
than full complaints or entire actions.28 The Court was neither persuaded by any of the
other policy arguments which would support the Sixth Circuit’s interpretation because the
effect of a total exhaustion rule could cause inmates to file various claims in separate
suits, to avoid the possibility of an unexhausted claim tainting the others; this certainly
would not comport with the purpose of the PLRA to reduce the quantity of inmate suits.29
The judgements of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit were
reversed, and the three cases were remanded for further proceedings consistent with the
Supreme Court’s opinion.
Id. at 923-24.
Id. at 924.
Id. at 925-26.