By Taylor Anderson

On May 21, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued its published opinion regarding the civil case Blake v. Ross. The appellant, inmate Shaidon Blake (“Blake”), appealed the district court’s summary dismissal of his 42 U.S.C. § 1983 excessive force claim against Appellee Lieutenant Michael Ross (“Ross”) on the ground that Blake failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). The Fourth Circuit reversed the judgment of the district court and remanded the case for further proceedings, holding that because Blake reasonably believed that he had sufficiently exhausted his remedies by complying with an internal investigation, Blake exhausted his administrative remedies as required by the PLRA.

Blake Alleged Use of Excessive Force

On June 21, 2007, Ross and Lieutenant James Madigan (“Madigan”) approached Blake’s cell at the Maryland Reception Diagnostic and Classification Center in order to move Blake to another cell block. Ross handcuffed Blake, and escorted him out of the cell towards his new cell downstairs. While Ross escorted Blake, Madigan physically contacted Blake multiple times. Madigan reached out and grabbed Blake’s arm, shoved Blake while he was walking down the stairs, and shoved Blake at the bottom of the stairs.

When they reached the new cell, Madigan ordered Blake to stand against the wall of the corridor. Madigan began yelling, screaming, and pointing in Blake’s face. While Ross held Blake against the wall, Madigan wrapped a key ring around his fingers and then punched Blake at least four times in the face in quick succession. Ross and Madigan then took Blake to the ground by lifting him up and dropping him. Ross dropped his knee onto Blake’s chest, and he and Madigan restrained Blake until other officers arrived. The responding officers took Blake to the medical unit.

That same day, Blake reported the incident to senior corrections officers. The Internal Investigative Unit (“IIU”) of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Corrections Services (“Department”) undertook a year-long investigation, eventually confirming that Madigan had used excessive force against Blake.

On September 8, 2009, Blake filed a pro se § 1983 complaint against Ross, Madigan, two supervisors, and three government entities. The district court later dismissed the claims against the government entities, and granted the two supervisors’ motion for summary judgment. After Ross filed an answer to the complaint, Ross motioned for summary judgment and the motion was denied.

On August 2, 2011, nearly two years after filing his answer to Blake’s complaint, Ross filed a motion to amend his answer. This motion was granted. Ross’s amended answer included a new affirmative defense alleging that Blake had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as required by the PLRA, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a).

On January 9, 2012, Ross moved for summary judgment on the ground that Blake had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. On May 10, 2012, the district court granted summary judgment to Ross. Blake timely appealed the dismissal of his claim against Ross.

What the PLRA Required Blake to Do

The PLRA requires an inmate to exhaust available administrative remedies before filing an action. The Department provides inmates with a number of administrative avenues for addressing complaints and problems. At issue here is the interaction between two of them: the Administrative Remedy Procedure (“ARP”) and the IIU.

The ARP is available for “all types of complaints” except “case management recommendations and decisions,” “Maryland Parole Commission procedures and decisions,” “disciplinary hearing procedures and decisions,” and “appeals of decisions to withhold mail.”

The IIU is responsible for investigating, among other things, allegations of excessive force by an employee or nonagency employee.

The IIU investigated Blake’s encounter with Ross and Madigan; however, Blake never filed an administrative grievance through the ARP. Ross contended that the ARP was available to Blake, thus Blake failed to exhaust all administrative remedies. Blake argued that the investigation removed his grievance from the ARP process. The Fourth Circuit sought to resolve this issue and examined the exhaustion defense in greater detail.

Ross’s Exhaustion Defense Was Without Merit

The Fourth Circuit noted that the PLRA’s exhaustion requirements are not absolute, pointing to Justice Breyer’s comment that there are “special circumstances” in which a prisoner’s failure to comply with administrative procedural requirements may have been justified. If the inmate’s failure to exhaust available remedies “was justified by his reasonable belief” that no further remedies were available, then the inmate’s failure may qualify as an exception to the PLRA requirements.

The Fourth Circuit went on to adopt the Second Circuit’s two prong test for determining whether a situation qualifies as an exception to the PLRA (formulated in Macias v. Zenk). If the situation satisfies both prongs, it qualifies as an exception to the PLRA’s complete exhaustion requirement.

The first prong is whether “the prisoner was justified in believing that his complaints in the disciplinary appeal procedurally exhausted his administrative remedies because the prison’s remedial system was confusing.” The Fourth Circuit determined that Blake reasonably interpreted Maryland’s murky and complex inmate grievance procedures by using three resources available: the Inmate Handbook, the Maryland Code of Regulations, and the Maryland Department of Correction Directives. Thus, Blake was justified in believing that his complaints to the IIU procedurally exhausted his administrative remedies. The Fourth Circuit found that the first prong was satisfied.

The second prong is whether “the prisoner’s submissions in the disciplinary appeals process exhausted his remedies in a substantive sense by affording corrections officials time and opportunity to address complaints internally.” The Fourth Circuit found that Blake’s IIU investigation satisfied this component of the exception because the Department conducted a one-year investigation into Blake’s violent encounter, giving officers ample notice and opportunity to internally address the issues raised.

Judgment Reversed and Remanded

Because Blake’s complaint to the IIU satisfied both prongs of the PLRA exception test, the Fourth Circuit held that Ross’s exhaustive defense was without merit, reversed the judgment of the district court, and remanded the case for further proceedings.

One Judge dissented. The dissenting Judge believed the Fourth Circuit should have affirmed the district court’s judgment because Maryland’s ARP was available to Blake and he did not use it, and for that reason, Blake’s unexhausted claim should not have gone forward.