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Broken Gate? A Study of the PLRA Exhaustion Requirement Past, Present, and Future
Unformatted Document Text:  Broken Gate? and/or justify an inmate’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies (Novikov, 2008, p. 827). Clearly akin to substantial compliance, this notion of, essentially mitigating factors, “left the door open for consideration of other justifications for nonexhaustion” including reasonable (even if incorrect) interpretation of prison regulations regarding navigation of the grievance system (Novikov, 2008, pp. 827-828). Almost precisely two (2) years after the Third Circuit’s decision in Spruill and the Second Circuit’s contradictory decision in Hemphill, the concept of procedural default was expressly adopted by the United States Supreme Court in Woodford v. Ngo, significantly increasing the overall impact of the PLRA in decreasing the volume of inmate litigation (Woodford, 2006). Woodford went, arguably, even further than Spruill in requiring “proper,” essentially “perfect” adherence to institutional grievance procedures in fulfillment of the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement (Woodford, 2006). Specifically, the Court held that “proper” exhaustion requires an inmate to file their initial grievance within the timeframe set forth in the correlating institutional grievance procedure, or face irretrievable default thereof, and corresponding exclusion from federal court (Woodford, 2006). The Court reasoned that “[t]he benefits of exhaustion can be realized only if the prison grievance system is given a fair opportunity to consider the grievance,” and that, by permitting late grievances to constitute exhaustion, the Court would, essentially, be promoting deliberate circumvention of the very prerequisite process intended by the PLRA (Woodford, 2006, 95-96). The Supreme Court’s opinion was also based on the belief that requiring “proper” exhaustion (i.e., exhaustion in accordance with the specific logistic requirements of institutional grievance procedures) would both further reduce the quantity and improve the quality of inmate litigation 16

Authors: Passarelli, Mariah.
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Broken Gate?
and/or justify an inmate’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies (Novikov, 2008, p. 
827).  Clearly akin to substantial compliance, this notion of, essentially mitigating 
factors, “left the door open for consideration of other justifications for nonexhaustion” 
including reasonable (even if incorrect) interpretation of prison regulations regarding 
navigation of the grievance system (Novikov, 2008, pp. 827-828).  
Almost precisely two (2) years after the Third Circuit’s decision in Spruill and the 
Second Circuit’s contradictory decision in Hemphill, the concept of procedural default 
was expressly adopted by the United States Supreme Court in Woodford v. Ngo
significantly increasing the overall impact of the PLRA in decreasing the volume of 
inmate litigation (Woodford, 2006).  Woodford went, arguably, even further than Spruill 
in requiring “proper,” essentially “perfect” adherence to institutional grievance 
procedures in fulfillment of the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement (Woodford, 2006). 
Specifically, the Court held that “proper” exhaustion requires an inmate to file their initial 
grievance within the timeframe set forth in the correlating institutional grievance 
procedure, or face irretrievable default thereof, and corresponding exclusion from federal 
court (Woodford, 2006).  The Court reasoned that “[t]he benefits of exhaustion can be 
realized only if the prison grievance system is given a fair opportunity to consider the 
grievance,” and that, by permitting late grievances to constitute exhaustion, the Court 
would, essentially, be promoting deliberate circumvention of the very prerequisite 
process intended by the PLRA (Woodford, 2006, 95-96).  The Supreme Court’s opinion 
was also based on the belief that requiring “proper” exhaustion (i.e., exhaustion in 
accordance with the specific logistic requirements of institutional grievance procedures) 
would both further reduce the quantity and improve the quality of inmate litigation 
16


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