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BLAKE v. ROSS, NO. 13-7279

Decided: May 21, 2015

The Fourth Circuit held that Blake reasonably believed that he had exhausted his administrative remedies as required under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), and reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

This appeal stemmed from the district court’s dismissal of Blake’s § 1983 claim against Ross in favor of Ross’s summary judgment. Ross was originally a co-defendant in an action that Blake brought against Madigan, a prison guard who severely beat him until he sustained nerve damage. After the incident, Blake filed a report with the Internal Investigative Unit of the Maryland Department of Public Safety, who conducted an investigation and issued a report confirming the events of Blake’s beating, and the report did not put him at fault for the incident. Following the report, Blake filed pro se claims against Madigan and Ross, among others, and Ross moved to dismiss or for summary judgment on the issues. The district court denied summary judgment to Ross, and appointed counsel to Blake to proceed. Almost two years after Ross filed an answer to Blake’s complaint, Ross attempted to amend his answer, which Blake’s counsel agreed to do on the condition that Blake be allowed to file an amended complaint. When Ross filed his amended answer, he asserted a new defense, that Blake had not exhausted all of his remedies, and the district court granted the motion to amend without giving Blake the opportunity to object. Blake moved two different times to strike the amended answer, while Ross moved for summary judgement; the district court denied Blake and granted Ross’s summary judgment. After succeeding in his trial against Madigan, Blake appealed the denial of his claim against Ross, asserting that Ross waived his exhaustion defense because he failed to include it in his initial answer or motion, and that even if Ross had not waived his defense, Blake had exhausted all of his administrative remedies. The Fourth Circuit held that Ross’s exhaustion defense was without merit without reaching the issue of whether or not he had waived that defense.

The court first established that they would be reviewing the decision de novo, and, as it was summary judgment, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Blake, the nonmovant. The court then examined the PLRA’s requirements for exhausting remedies, noting that although “true exhaustion” is required, “an administrative remedy is not considered to have been available if a prisoner, through no fault of his own, was prevented from availing himself of it.” The court further noted the main source of conflict in this case: the intersection between the Administrative Remedy Procedure, (ARP), and the IIU, and examined the procedures required by both of those administrative bodies. Although Blake did not go through the ARP process, he contended that since he complied with the IIU investigation, he was prevented from the ARP process through no fault of his own. To decide this matter, the court first addressed the question of what legal standard Ross had to meet in order to show that Blake did not exhaust his remedies. After considering the policy reasons for the exhaustion requirement, the court noted that in certain cases, exceptions to the exhaustion requirement could be necessary, and adopted the two-part test from the Second Circuit’s decisions in Marias and Giano. To satisfy the two-prong test, the claimant must have procedurally believed he had exhausted his remedies because the administrative system was confusing, and substantively he must have exhausted his remedies by permitting authorities enough time to conduct an internal investigation. In applying the test, the court found that Blake very clearly satisfied the substantive prong, as the IIU’s one-year investigation into the incident provided them with ample time to deal with the situation. The court then looked to see if the process was confusing, examining the Handbook, Maryland Code of Regulations, and Maryland Department of Corrections Directives. The Fourth Circuit concluded that these three manuals were ambiguous, and Blake’s interpretation of their “murky process” was reasonable in light of the ambiguities. The court thus held that the district court erred when it granted Ross’s summary judgment motion on the basis of the exhaustion defense, and reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

Full Opinion

Jennie Rischbieter