It is not often that the U.S. Supreme Court reviews Maryland’s procedures on claims, but last week the Supreme Court did issue an opinion regarding procedures under which inmates in the Maryland prisons can make claims against prison guards for alleged injuries. The case was brought by inmate Shaidon Blake against two corrections officers, and the opinion is called Michael Ross v. Shaidon Blake.
The majority opinion (two other justices wrote separate opinions) indicates that Blake was being transferred into the prison’s segregation unit by Ross and another guard named Madigan, when Madigan punched Blake several times in the face. Blake reported this to another corrections officer, and the complaint was referred to the prison system’s Internal Investigative Unit which issued a report condemning Madigan’s actions. Blake then sued both officers under federal law for violating his constitutional rights, and got a judgment against Madigan. Ross challenged the suit against him, alleging that Blake first had to exhaust administrative remedies under Maryland law before he could sue him.
The trial judge agreed with Ross and dismissed the case, but the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed based on its own rule under the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act. That law required prisoners to exhaust state law administrative remedies before suing, but the Fourth Circuit added a rule that special circumstances can excuse a failure to follow through on the administrative process, such as when the inmate reasonably believes he has done so. The Supreme Court held that the PRLA did not support such a rule.
However, the Court said that Maryland law may be confusing on what a prisoner is required to do. It noted that Maryland has an Administrative Remedy Procedure (ARP) Act, but Blake claimed that where the Internal Investigative Unit was reviewing a complaint, the prison system would refuse to process a claim under the ARP. The opinion notes that the Prison Litigation Reform Act only requires exhaustion of “available” administrative remedies, and such procedures may not truly be available if they are routinely dead ends because the prison authorities are consistently unwilling to provide relief, or misrepresent the process or intimidate inmates.
The Court sent the case back down to the 4th Circuit to review these Maryland procedures, to decide whether Maryland’s system is truly available to prisoners who claim abuse.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.