Overcoming Administrative Silence in Prisoner Litigation: Grievance Specificity and the “Object Intelligibly” Standard

By:  Antonieta Pimienta


The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) requires that prisoners exhaust available administrative remedies before filing a federal action challenging prison conditions. Thus, an inmate can only file a lawsuit in federal court after proceeding through each step of the prison’s grievance procedure and meeting all procedural requirements. This exhaustion process is complicated by the fact that most prison systems provide little guidance about the specificity with which a prisoner must describe a grievance in order to preserve the right to assert a claim in federal court. Either they say nothing about the level of detail required in grievances or the requirement is very general. In Strong v. David, the Seventh Circuit held that in situations where the administrative rulebook is silent as to specificity, a grievance suffices if it “object[s] intelligibly” to some asserted shortcoming. While several courts agree that a grievance must provide only enough information for prison officials to be able to investigate the prisoner’s problem, other courts hold grievances inadequate when they fail to articulate legal theories or spell out the elements of legal claims. This inconsistency among courts is particularly problematic considering the common characteristics of prisoner-plaintiffs, most of whom proceed pro se. This Note argues that in situations of administrative silence, federal courts should adopt the Seventh Circuit’s “object intelligibly” standard for determining the adequacy of prisoner grievances.


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