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Porter v. Nussle

February 26, 2002

CORRECTION OFFICER PORTER, ET AL., PETITIONERS
v.
RONALD NUSSLE



Court Below: 224 F. 3d 95

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

OCTOBER TERM, 2001

Argued January 14, 2002

Without filing a grievance under applicable Connecticut Department of Correction procedures, plaintiff-respondent Nussle, a state prison inmate, commenced a federal court action under 42 U. S. C. §1983, charging that corrections officers, including defendant-petitioner Porter, had subjected him to a sustained pattern of harassment and intimidation and had singled him out for a severe beating in violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishments." The District Court dismissed Nussle's suit, relying on a provision of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA), 42 U. S. C. §1997e(a), that directs: "No action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 ... , or any other Federal law, by a prisoner ... until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted." The Second Circuit reversed, holding that exhaustion of administrative remedies is not required for a claim of the kind Nussle asserted. The appeals court concluded that §1997e(a)'s "prison conditions" phrase covers only conditions affecting prisoners generally, not single incidents that immediately affect only particular prisoners, such as corrections officers' use of excessive force. In support of its position, the court cited legislative history suggesting that the PLRA curtails frivolous suits, not actions seeking relief from corrections officer brutality; the court also referred to pre-PLRA decisions in which this Court distinguished, for proof of injury and mens rea purposes, between excessive force claims and conditions of confinement claims.

Held: The PLRA's exhaustion requirement applies to all inmate suits about prison life, whether they involve general circumstances or particular episodes, and whether they allege excessive force or some other wrong. Cf. Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U. S. 294, 299, n. 1. Pp. 5-14.

(a) The current exhaustion provision in §1997e(a) differs markedly from its predecessor. Once within the district court's discretion, exhaustion in §1997e(a) cases is now mandatory. See Booth v. Churner, 532 U. S. 731, 739. And unlike the previous provision, which encompassed only §1983 suits, exhaustion is now required for all "action[s] ... brought with respect to prison conditions." Section 1997e(a), designed to reduce the quantity and improve the quality of prisoner suits, affords corrections officials an opportunity to address complaints internally before allowing the initiation of a federal case. In some instances, corrective action taken in response to an inmate's grievance might improve prison administration and satisfy the inmate, thereby obviating the need for litigation. Id., at 737. In other instances, the internal review might filter out some frivolous claims. Ibid. And for cases ultimately brought to court, an administrative record clarifying the controversy's contours could facilitate adjudication. See, e.g., ibid. Pp. 5-7.

(b) Determination of the meaning of §1997e(a)'s "prison conditions" phrase is guided by the PLRA's text and context, and by this Court's prior decisions relating to "[s]uits by prisoners," as §1997e is titled. The pathmarking opinion is McCarthy v. Bronson, 500 U. S. 136, in which the Court construed the Federal Magistrates Act's authorization to district judges to refer "prisoner petitions challenging conditions of confinement" to magistrate judges. This Court concluded in McCarthy that, read in its proper context, the phrase "challenging conditions of confinement" authorizes the nonconsensual reference of all prisoner petitions to a magistrate, id., at 139. The McCarthy Court emphasized that Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U. S. 475, had unambiguously placed cases involving single episodes of unconstitutional conduct within the broad category of prisoner petitions challenging conditions of confinement, 500 U. S., at 141; found it telling that Congress, in composing the Magistrates Act, chose language that so clearly paralleled the Preiser opinion, 500 U. S., at 142; and considered it significant that the latter Act's purpose -- to lighten overworked district judges' caseload -- would be thwarted by allowing satellite litigation over the precise contours of an exception for single episode cases, id., at 143. The general presumption that Congress expects its statutes to be read in conformity with this Court's precedents, United States v. Wells, The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Ginsburg

On Writ Of Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Second Circuit

This case concerns the obligation of prisoners who claim denial of their federal rights while incarcerated to exhaust prison grievance procedures before seeking judicial relief. Plaintiff-respondent Ronald Nussle, an inmate in a Connecticut prison, brought directly to court, without filing an inmate grievance, a complaint charging that corrections officers singled him out for a severe beating, in violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishments." Nussle bypassed the grievance procedure despite a provision of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA), 110 Stat. 1321-73, as amended, 42 U. S. C. §1997e(a) (1994 ed., Supp. V), that directs: "No action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 of this title, or any other Federal law, by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted."

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that §1997e(a) governs only conditions affecting prisoners generally, not single incidents, such as corrections officers' use of excessive force, actions that immediately affect only particular prisoners. Nussle defends the Second Circuit's judgment, but urges that the relevant distinction is between excessive force claims, which, he says, need not be pursued administratively, and all other claims, which, he recognizes, must proceed first through the prison grievance process. We reject both readings and hold, in line with the text and purpose of the PLRA, our precedent in point, and the weight of lower court authority, that §1997e(a)'s exhaustion requirement applies to all prisoners seeking redress for prison circumstances or occurrences.

I.

Respondent Ronald Nussle is an inmate at the Cheshire Correctional Institution in Connecticut. App. 38. According to his complaint, corrections officers at the prison subjected him to "a prolonged and sustained pattern of harassment and intimidation" from the time of his arrival there in May 1996. Id., at 39. Nussle alleged that he was singled out because he was "perceived" to be a friend of the Governor of Connecticut, with whom corrections officers were feuding over labor issues. Ibid.

Concerning the episode in suit, Nussle asserted that, on or about June 15, 1996, several officers, including defendant-petitioner Porter, ordered Nussle to leave his cell, "placed him against a wall and struck him with their hands, kneed him in the back, [and] pulled his hair." Ibid. Nussle alleged that the attack was unprovoked and unjustified, and that the officers told him they would kill him if he reported the beating. Ibid.

Then, as now, the Connecticut Department of Correction provided a grievance system for prisoners. See id., at 5-18. Under that system, grievances must be filed within 30 days of the "occurrence." Id., at 11. Rules governing the grievance process include ...


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