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The federal Prison Litigation Reform Act prohibits prisoner-filed lawsuits over prison conditions unless the inmate has first exhausted available administrative remedies.

Appeals Court: Prison Litigation Reform Act Doesn’t Apply to Suits Filed by Ex-Prisoners

A three-judge panel of a federal appeals court has ruled that the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) applies only to lawsuits filed by people who are incarcerated at the time they file the lawsuit, not to those formerly incarcerated.

On May 19, in Olivas v. Nevada, the 9th Circuit panel reinstated a lawsuit brought by Dario Olivas, a former inmate in Nevada’s High Desert State Prison, that he had filed against the prison, one corrections officer that was named, and 10 unnamed officers.

In July 2012, Olivas was eating in the prison dining hall when a fight broke out nearby. Nevada equips its corrections officers with shotguns loaded with birdshot – one of the only states that does so. One officer quickly fired at the fighting inmates. Olivas, who wasn’t involved in the fight, was hit by pellets in his upper body, face, and eye. As a result of that, and the allegedly inadequate medical treatment of the injury, he lost sight in one eye and was permanently disfigured.

After being released almost two years later, acting as his own lawyer, Olivas filed a state court lawsuit, alleging his injuries were caused by unconstitutional actions of prison officers and violations of various state laws. After the case was moved to the federal district court, the presiding judge reviewed the case using procedures set in the PLRA.

Adopted by Congress in 1995, the PLRA was designed to crack down on frivolous lawsuits by creating new requirements for prisoner lawsuits, in order to ease courts’ caseload burdens. One section of the new law disallows filing of claims that are malicious, frivolous, don’t state a claim on which relief can be granted, or which seek monetary damages from an immune defendant.

PLRA also prohibits prisoner-filed lawsuits over prison conditions unless the inmate has first exhausted available administrative remedies. The PLRA doesn’t specify what administrative remedies a state must provide, but the Supreme Court has clearly held they must be completed before a prisoner’s lawsuit may be heard.

Finding the case failed to meet PLRA standards, the judge then dismissed the federal and constitutional claims, and sent the state law claims to a state court, which soon dismissed them as well. He did allow Olivas a chance to amend his lawsuit, however. Now aided by counsel, Olivas renewed his case, claiming the officers intended to harm him.

The revised complaint then came back to the judge for another PLRA review, and was again found deficient. The case could not go forward, the judge ruled, because Olivas had not offered any basis for showing intent to harm him. Instead, the court viewed the shotgun injury as an unintentional consequence of a good-faith effort to restore order.

But when the dismissal went to the federal appeals court, the three-judge panel focused on a new question: whether PLRA screening was appropriate for a lawsuit filed by a former inmate, not a current prisoner. Based on the statute’s definition of “prisoner,” they decided it was not, overriding the lower court’s dismissal and reviving Olivas’ case. Because Olivas was not in custody at the time he filed the lawsuit, it was wrong for the lower court to screen it for compliance with PLRA requirements.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington PostNew York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.

About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis, a writer currently incarcerated at FCC Petersburg (Medium), is an impassioned and active prison education advocate, a legal commentator, and a prolific writer of books, book reviews, and prison law articles. While living in federal prison at various security levels, retaliations for his activism have earned him long stretches in solitary, or "the hole." While in prison, he has earned numerous academic, legal, and ministerial credentials. Christopher is very knowledgeable about prison-related legal issues, prison policy, federal regulations, and case law. He is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014) and thePrison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016).The Federal Prison Handbook is an IndieReader Discovery Awards winner. A regularly featured contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Prison Legal News, the nation's most prominent prison law publication, Christopher has enjoyed significant media exposure through appearances with the Wall Street Journal's Market Watch, Vice.com, Salon.com, In These Times, The Jeff McArthur Show, The Simi Sara Show,TheCommentary.ca, 88.9 WERS' award-winning "You Are Here" radio segment, and The Examiner. Other articles and book reviews appeared in The New York Journal of Books, the Kansas City Star, The Sacramento Bee, Blog Critics, Midwest Book Review, Basil and Spice, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, AND Magazine, Truth-Out.org, Rain Taxi, and the Education Behind Bars Newsletter, with content syndicated by the Associated Press, Google News, and Yahoo News. He established three websites: PrisonEducation.com, PrisonerResource.com, and ChristopherZoukis.com, and was a former editor of the Education Behind Bars Newsletter. In 2011, his fiction won two PEN American Center Prison Writing Awards for a screenplay and a short story. He taught a popular course on writing and publishing to over 100 fellow prisoners. Today Christopher is successfully working on a Bachelor's Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies (Business/Law) from Adams State University. Following his 2016 graduation, he plans on attending Adams State University's MBA program. He regularly advises fellow prisoners and prison consultants about legal issues and federal regulations governing the Federal Bureau of Prisons operations. Upon release he plans to attend law school and become a federal criminal defense attorney. Christopher will not allow incarceration to waste his years or halt the progress of his life. He began his prison terms as a confused kid who made poor decisions but is today determined to create a better life. "We can't let the past define us," he says. "We have to do something today to make tomorrow what we want it to be."

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