Must inmates exhaust their administrative remedies before filing a state civil rights action?

Inmate

Berry v. Feil (Nev. Ct. App. – June 11, 2015)

The issue is whether civil rights complaints filed by inmates under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in Nevada state courts are subject to the exhaustion of administrative remedies requirement imposed by the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995’s (PLRA) amendment of 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a).

Berry, an inmate, filed a civil rights complaint against Feil, the Lovelock Correctional Center law library supervisor, and Brown, an inmate library clerk, in the Sixth Judicial District Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In his complaint, Berry alleged that Feil and Brown failed to mail his confidential legal mail and conspired to hide evidence of this alleged transgression, and that Feil retaliated against Berry for filing a grievance against her by refusing his requests for legal supplies and confiscating his books. Based on these allegations, the complaint asserted violations of Berry’s right to free speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and his rights to due process and unobstructed access to the courts under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Feil subsequently moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. While Feil acknowledged that Berry filed grievances regarding the incidents alleged in his complaint, she asserted he nonetheless failed to exhaust his administrative remedies because he did not complete all the steps of the grievance process as required by federal law. In response, Berry moved to strike the motion to dismiss. Although he did not file a separate, specifically labeled opposition to the motion to dismiss, his motion to strike included substantive arguments addressing the grounds on which Feil sought to have his complaint dismissed, and thus, despite its title, it effectively operated as both a motion to strike and an opposition to Feil’s motion. The district court subsequently dismissed Berry’s entire complaint without prejudice based on his failure to exhaust his administrative remedies. Berry appealed.

The Nevada Court of Appeals explained that Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA) in an effort to curb a sharp rise in prisoner litigation that had occurred in the years preceding its passage. Among other things, the PLRA amended 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a) to provide that no action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 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.

In its order dismissing the complaint, the district court noted that § 1997e(a) limits inmates’ abilities to file civil rights actions relating to prison conditions by requiring them to first exhaust all available administrative remedies. Thus, because it found Berry failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, the district court concluded Berry’s complaint must be dismissed pursuant to the PLRA. On appeal, Berry argued, among other issues, that the district court erred in applying the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement to his state court civil rights action, even though his case was brought under § 1983.

The district court relied on § 1997e(a) in dismissing Berry’s underlying action based on its determination Berry had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies prior to filing his civil rights complaint. On appeal from this determination, Berry insinuated that § 1997e(a) did not apply to his complaint because it was brought in state, rather than federal court. The Nevada Court of Appeals explained that contrary to Berry’s argument, federal and state courts that have been confronted with this issue have widely recognized that the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement applies to § 1983 actions filed in state courts.

Accordingly, the Court concluded the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement set forth in § 1997e(a) applies to inmate § 1983 civil rights actions challenging prison conditions filed in Nevada state courts. Here, Berry did not dispute that his complaint, which alleged, among other things, that Feil and Brown tampered with his legal mail and that Feil retaliated against him for filing a grievance against her, challenged his conditions of confinement. Therefore, the Court found that under these circumstances, the district court did not err in applying § 1997e(a)’s exhaustion requirement to Berry’s claims.

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