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Supreme Court hears arguments on federal debt collection, prisoner exhaustion

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF] Tuesday in two cases. In Sheriff v. Gillie [transcript, PDF] the court heard arguments [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] on whether the special counsel attorneys appointed by the attorney general to collect debts owed to the state are "state officers" under the meaning of the Federal Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) [materials]. As a second issue, the court considered whether these special counsel attorneys using Attorney General letterheads when sending correspondence to collect debts is materially misleading. The case arose [Oyez summary] from plaintiffs in Ohio who sued after receiving debt collection letters from attorneys with the state attorney general's letterhead. The plaintiffs argued defendant attorneys violated the FDCPA by using the Ohio Attorney General letterhead. The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit [official website] vacated the lower court's decision and held that the special counsel attorneys are "debt collectors' under the FDCPA and that there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether the use of Ohio Attorney General's seal on debt collection letters was misleading.

The court also heard arguments in Ross v. Blake [transcript, PDF] on whether [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] there exists a "special circumstances" exception under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) [LLI materials] which requires inmates to exhaust all administrative remedies when the inmate erroneously believed that he satisfied this requirement by participating in an internal investigation. The case arose [Oyez summary] after prison inmate Shaidon Blake sued Lieutenants Michael Ross and James Madigan for excessive use of force. The officers filed an amended answer to the complaint alleging that Blake had not exhausted all administrative remedies available as the PLRA required. The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit [official website] reversed the lower court decision and held that the "special circumstances" exception to the PLRA's exhaustion requirement was met. The court stated that the internal investigation provided prison official ample time to address Blake's complaints and Blake believed he had exhausted all administrative remedies, thus meeting the "special circumstances" exception.

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