On June 22, 2006, the Supreme Court decided an unglamorous administrative exhaustion case involving the ability of prisoners to bring civil lawsuits in federal court. The case, Woodford v. Ngo, split the Court 6‐3 with Justice Alito writing for the majority. The decision itself hinges on a close reading of the term “exhaustion” and its requirements under administrative law and the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). The Woodford majority held that, in light of the PLRA, a prisoner must “properly exhaust” administrative remedies before filing a claim in federal court; failure to follow this procedural requirement results in dismissal of an improperly exhausted claim. “Proper exhaustion,” as defined by the Court, requires prisoners not only to go through administrative proceedings and seek the remedies “that meet federal standards,” but also to pursue “all ‘available’ [administrative] remedies” to their procedural conclusion.
Thus, on its face, Woodford appears to make filing claims in federal court even more difficult for prisoners by strictly interpreting the relevant statutory language. However, the goal of this Comment is to demonstrate that Woodford has had no such effect. Ten years after the Supreme Court’s decision, prisoners’ filings of unexhausted claims in federal court have actually increased. Prisoner litigants likely do not have adequate knowledge of the procedural prerequisites to filing a civil claim in federal court. To resolve the ongoing disconnect between the law relevant to prisoner filings and filings in reality, this Comment proposes bridging the existing knowledge gap that may be partially responsible for improperly or unexhausted claims brought by prisoners in federal court. Including an informational cover sheet on prisoner pro se civil complaint forms that gives potential claimants an overview of the exhaustion requirement may at least give prisoners pause before writing out their claims and filing a suit that would be dismissed on procedural grounds.
Without making the relevant law salient to those it directly affects, Woodford’s deterrent impact on improperly exhausted prisoner civil claims may remain minimal. As a result, prisoners will likely continue to file improperly exhausted civil claims in federal court, which require courts’ time and resources to dismiss, even via order (in lieu of a full opinion). For prisoners, an ongoing knowledge gap in this context will mean running up against the PLRA’s three strikes rule, additional filing fees, and perhaps due to procedural failings, losing the ability to bring a substantively meritorious claim.