Court mulls 'vicarious exhaustion' in jail suit

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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A court ruling issued Monday by a federal judge in Indianapolis touches on a legal nuance that's yet to be addressed by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago and is also a relatively new argument for Indiana.

In the jail-condition prisoner suit of Trevor Richardson v. Monroe County Sheriff, et al., No. 1:08-cv-0174 U.S., Judge Richard Young of the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Indiana, denied a motion from the Monroe County Sheriff's Office to dismiss the suit and granted the plaintiff's motion to certify as a class action.

Trevor Richardson filed suit in February when he was incarcerated in Monroe County Correctional Center, contending that overcrowding led to unsafe and hazardous conditions for inmates. He filed a grievance and two appeals with correctional officers, but he received no response before filing his suit and asking for class-action status. He was released within a week of that filing.

Though Richardson has been released and his individual claims are moot, Judge Young determined that the case warranted class-action status as it could impact the proposed class. But jail officials argued that each prisoner should have to prove they satisfy the requirements to join the class.

In a footnote, Judge Young points out that the related issue of "vicarious exhaustion of administrative remedies" exists in this case - whether the exhaustion of administrative remedies should be carried over to all members of the class.

That issue has only come up before in a Sept. 24, 2007, decision in Wade Meisberger and Ernest Tope v. J. David Donahue, No. 1:06-cv-1047, when Judge Larry McKinney in the Southern District of Indiana found that the vicarious exhaustion requirement applies to cases brought under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals hasn't directly addressed that issue, but the Southern District tackled that nuance in the ruling last year and relied on precedent from other District Courts and the 11th Circuit in Atlanta.

In that ongoing suit that has been stayed pending a potential settlement, the court agreed with the prisoners that the "vicarious exhaustion" should apply and the court agreed, pointing out that it was a new issue for the 7th Circuit. At the time, Judge McKinney wrote that it would be wasteful to require each and every prisoner to present the same claim to the Department of Correction when the agency has already had the chance to address it in the named plaintiff's claim.

"The court sees no reason to diverge from its earlier ruling," Judge Young wrote in Monday's footnote.

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