In Ross v. Blake, published June 6, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the 4th Circuit's holding that "special circumstances" excused an inmate from exhausting his prison's administrative remedies before suing two guards under 42 U.S.C. section 1983 for use of excessive force. The inmate reported the excessive force incident to a senior corrections officer, who referred the incident to the state prison system's Internal Investigation Unit. The IIU conducted an investigation and issued a report condemning one of the guard's actions while making no findings on the other guard's actions. The state also prescribed procedures for obtaining an administrative remedy, the Administrative Remedy Procedure, that began with a formal grievance to the prison's warden, and also involved administrative appeals. The inmate did not pursue those remedies. One of the guards raised as an affirmative defense the requirement under 42 U.S.C. section 1997e(a), part of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, that prisoners exhaust administrative requirements before suing under federal statutes for prison conditions, including use of excessive force. The 4th Circuit ruled that the PRLA's exhaustion requirement was not absolute, and that a prisoner's reasonable but mistaken belief that he had sufficiently exhausted his remedies excused failure to exhaust available remedies.
The Supreme Court rejected that interpretation of the PRLA. The language of the statute, amended from a more permissive exhaustion provision, requires that prisoners exhaust available administrative remedies before suing. Courts cannot create exceptions to Congress's statutory direction. But the court remanded the case for a determination of whether the administrative remedies were actually "available" to the inmate. An administrative remedy may be "unavailable" to an inmate if it operates as a dead end, with officers unable or consistently unwilling to provide any relief to aggrieved inmates. It may also be unavailable if it is so opaque that no ordinary prisoner can discern or navigate it. Finally, a remedy may be unavailable if prison administrators thwart inmates from taking advantage of it through machination, misrepresentation, or intimidation.