Litigating Claims Under the P.L.R.A.
Under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, prisoners shall be protected from inhumane treatment or anything considered to be “cruel and unusual” while they are incarcerated in a U.S. Prison. When the Eighth Amendment was first passed to protect prisoners, “cruel and unusual” meant extreme forms of torture or death. However, revisions have been made to the law to prohibit conditions such as sexual assault, violence, poor prison living conditions, and lack of proper medical treatment. Unfortunately, prisoners are still victims of inhumane treatment in prisons across the United States.
In 1996, in response to the overwhelming number of suits filed alleging inhumane prison conditions or staff misconduct, the Clinton Administration passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The Act was intended to eliminate the amount of frivolous claims against prison conditions and staff misconduct. However, the Act has made it more difficult for prisoners to seek relief for inhumane prison conditions.
Four Elements of the Prison Litigation Reform Act
Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies
Before you file a lawsuit, you must try to resolve your complaint through the prison’s grievance procedure. This usually requires that you give a written description of your complaint (often called a “grievance”) to a prison official. If the prison provides a second or third step (like letting you appeal to the warden), then you must also take those steps. If you file a lawsuit in federal court before taking your complaints through every step of your prison’s grievance procedure, it will almost certainly be dismissed.
In addition, every claim you raise in your lawsuit must be exhausted. However, if a prisoner does not file a grievance because he is unable to obtain grievance forms, or no administrative remedy is available, then the prisoner may file in court.
An exception to the requirement is that all appeals be taken, occurs if the prisoner cannot appeal without a decision from the lower level of the grievance system, and the lower level did not respond to the grievance. Courts have differed widely on when failure might be excused. But the safest course is always: with respect to each claim you want to raise, and each defendant you want to name in your eventual lawsuit, you should file a grievance and appeal that grievance through all available levels of appeal. You should get a copy of your prison’s grievance policy and follow it as closely as you can.
Other means of notifying prison officials of your complaint, such as speaking to staff, putting in a kite, or writing to the warden, do not constitute exhaustion. You must use the grievance system.
Most courts have held that failure to exhaust is an affirmative defense that must be raised by the defendants. Then, if the court finds that the prisoner has not exhausted, the case is dismissed without prejudice, meaning that the lawsuit may be filed again once the prisoner has exhausted, as long as the statute of limitations has not run.
There is not a great deal of case law yet addressing whether a prisoner who misses a deadline in the grievance process (many grievance systems have very short deadlines) forever loses his/her constitutional or statutory claim. If you are in this situation, you should appeal through all the levels of the grievance system and explain in the grievance the reasons for the failure to file on time.
Finally, the statute of limitations is tolled (paused) while a prisoner is in the process of exhausting administrative remedies.
All prisoners must pay court filing fees in full. If you do not have the money up front, you can pay the filing fee over time through monthly installments from your prison commissary account, but the filing fee will not be waived.
A complex statutory formula requires the indigent prisoner to pay an initial fee of 20% of the greater of the prisoner’s average balance or the average deposits to the account for the preceding six months. After the initial payment, the prisoner is to pay monthly installments of 20% of the income credited to the account in the previous month until the fee has been paid.
Each lawsuit or appeal you file that is dismissed because a judge decides that it is frivolous, malicious, or does not state a proper claim counts as a “strike.” After you get three strikes, you cannot file another lawsuit in forma pauperis – that is, you cannot file unless you pay the entire court filing fee up-front. The only exception to this rule is if you are at risk of suffering serious physical injury in the immediate future.
Physical Injury Requirement
You cannot file a lawsuit for mental or emotional injury unless you can also show physical injury. The requirement of physical injury only applies to money damages, it does not apply to claims for injunctive and declaratory relief. Not surprisingly, the courts differ in their evaluation of what constitutes sufficient harm to qualify as a physical injury.