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Maryland seeks Supreme Court review in prisoner-beating lawsuit

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Maryland is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to postpone, pending the completion of administrative review, a prisoner’s federal lawsuit alleging a guard roughed him up in a Baltimore jail.

In a petition to the high court, Attorney General Brian E. Frosh argues that Shaidon Blake’s lawsuit against the guard should be dismissed because Blake had failed to exhaust Maryland administrative complaint procedure before filing suit against Michael Ross and the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, as required under the federal 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act.

In May, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a federal judge’s dismissal of Blake’s case, saying in a 2-1 decision that Blake’s participation in the prison’s internal investigation of the allegation was a sufficient prerequisite to his filing suit under the PLRA.

But Frosh, in his request for Supreme Court review, states that Congress intended completion of the administrative process to be mandatory before suit “to slow the relentless cascade of unmeritorious and routinely frivolous, prisoner civil rights suits, which were then overwhelming the federal judicial system” in the mid-1990s.

The number of prisoner suits filed in U.S. District Courts was down by 10,000 in 2014 after having reached a high of more than 40,000 in 1996, when the PLRA was enacted, according to data from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

“In this case, a divided panel of the 4th Circuit fashioned a new common law exception to the PLRA’s exhaustion provision that threatens to erode this central requirement and invite a deluge of frivolous prisoner lawsuits,” Frosh wrote in the petition filed last Monday. “Given the massive number of prisoner cases that the federal courts consider on a daily basis, this common law exception to the PLRA’s mandate is a matter of exceptional importance that this court should consider.”

Blake’s attorney, Reginald R. Goeke, said the 4th Circuit’s decision was correct and he will urge the justices to reject Frosh’s petition for Supreme Court review.

Goeke, of Mayer Brown LLP in Washington, has until Oct. 19 to file his response to Frosh’s petition. The Supreme Court has not set a date for its consideration of the attorney general’s request.

Maryland’s appeal is docketed at the Supreme Court as Michael Ross v. Shaidon Blake, No. 15-339.

Julia Doyle Bernhardt, Frosh’s deputy chief of litigation, is listed as counsel of record for the state.

Blake testified during the department’s investigation that Ross had held him down while fellow guard James Madigan pummeled him on June 21, 2007, at the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center. Blake alleges the assault caused resulted in nerve damage.

Based on its investigation, the department fired Madigan after concluding he had punched Blake in the face five times while he was being restrained, allegedly by Ross, who was not implicated in the investigator’s report.

Blake, who was convicted in April 2007 of second-degree murder and conspiracy in the killing of a fellow gang member, filed against, Ross, Madigan and others in September 2009 in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. A jury awarded Blake $50,000 in February 2013, finding Madigan had violated Blake’s constitutional right not to be subjected to excessive force.

U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. granted summary judgment for Ross in May 2012, finding that Blake had not first presented his claim for administrative review by the department.

But the 4th Circuit said Blake’s testimony to investigators was sufficient presentation under the PLRA.

Blake reasonably believed the investigation exhausted the administrative process, and the department was given adequate notice of and an opportunity to address the prisoner’s complaints, the 4th Circuit held in sending the case back for trial and prompting the state’s appeal to the Supreme Court.