New opinions: the PLRA may be crazy, but it’s not *that crazy

The PLRA–the unfair federal law governing prisoner lawsuits–requires prisoners to exhaust administrative remedies before they can sue for violations of their civil rights, and it sets a statute of limitations. Is the limitations period tolled while prisoners exhaust? If not, then the prison could prevent court scrutiny of its own actions–could deny the prisoner his day in court, no matter how serious the claim–just by dragging its feet.

Sounds insane, but that’s what two WDPA federal judges held. Happily, today CA3 reversed. The court held that the PLRA statute of limitations is statutorily tolled while prisoners exhaust their administrative remedies. The court also reversed the lower court’s dismissal of other claims, holding that the prisoner’s allegations stated a valid claim.

The case is Pearson v. Secretary. Opinion by Sloviter, joined by McKee and Rendell. Arguing counsel were Jessica Collins of Kellogg Huber (an associate) for the prisoner and Kemal Mericili for the DOC. The panel thanked Kellogg Huber for their able pro bono representation.


Today’s second published reversal in favor of a prisoner plaintiff–did that ever happen in the pre-Orange Is The New Black era?–is a class-action case. The lead inmate alleged that the federal prison had a practice of assigning enemy inmates to the same cell, failing to intervene when inmate-on-inmate violence resulted, and punishing inmates who refused to cell with an enemy. The inmate sued and sought class certification and an injunction. The district court granted summary judgment to the prison, ruling that the suit failed to identify the class clearly enough (ascertainability).

Today, CA3 reversed. CA3 held that class ascertainability was not a prerequisite to class certification when the suit seeks only injunctive relief under FRCivP 23(b)(2). It also held that, to seek discovery in order to oppose summary judgment, a formal discovery motion is not required and an affidavit or declaration is sufficient.

I believe I’ve never read a more strongly worded reversal of a ruling made by a 91-year district judge. I mean, when the federal courthouse in Scranton is named for you, and your former law clerk sits on the appeals court, you’re probably hoping no one will say you “imposed extra requirements . . . that [you] then paradoxically ruled were fatal” and “It is difficult to understand why.” And you surely don’t expect them to say your ruling “undermined, rather than served, the purposes of Rule 23,” “was neither necessary nor appropriate,” and lacks “Common sense.” And this: “Here, the district court granted summary judgment to the defendants without even”–even!–“considering the declaration that Shelton’s attorney filed . . . . This was an abuse of discretion.” Kapow.

The case is Shelton v. Bledsoe. Opinion by McKee, joined by Smith and Sloviter. Arguing counsel were Christine Levin of Dechert for the inmate and Michael Butler for the government.


In today’s third and final case–a civil case, also a reversal–the panel held that the district court misapplied state law when it dismissed the suit pursuant to an outdated version of New Jersey’s “idiosyncratic” entire-controversy doctrine.

The case is Ricketti v. Barry. Opinion by Hardiman, joined by Smith and Barry. Arguing counsel were Bruce Crelin of Kern Augustine for the appellant and Robert Travisano of Epstein Becker for the appellees.