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In an apparent case of first impression in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a Northern District judge has found that juvenile delinquents detained by New York state are covered by the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act. U.S. District Judge David N. Hurd’s ruling in Lewis v. Gagne means that youths with a complaint about their treatment in a state facility must exhaust administrative remedies before they will be allowed in court. That determination is consistent with rulings from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and the Northern District of Illinois. However, while finding that the plain language of the statute clearly pertains to juveniles as well as other detainees, Hurd rejected a hypertechnical reading of the administrative exhaustion requirement and allowed the plaintiff to proceed in federal court. The matter involves Corey Lewis, a juvenile delinquent who was detained at Tryon Residential Facility in Johnstown, N.Y., in 2001. Lewis, who was 13 at the time, claims that aides intentionally burned his hand and wrist on a metal heater while attempting to restrain him. He also alleges he was denied medical treatment by a burn specialist or outside hospital. Tryon is operated by the state Office of Children and Family Services, which is under legislative mandate to establish formal grievance procedures in juvenile facilities. The adopted policy mirrors that of the state’s prisons and includes three administrative appellate levels. Lewis had used that formal process several times, both before and after the alleged incident. Here, Lewis made verbal complaints to the staff, and his mother contacted an attorney and the Family Court. She also filed a complaint with the New York State Child Abuse and Maltreatment Register. However, since the precise grievance procedure was not followed, the state moved for dismissal based on failure to exhaust administrative remedies. As a threshold matter, Hurd considered whether the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) even applies to juvenile detainees. Lewis claimed the PLRA should apply solely to prisoners in criminal custody and that juveniles are in essence civilly detained. But Hurd rejected that argument, as have the few courts that have addressed the same issue. The court noted that the statute defines a prisoner as anyone who is detained after being convicted, accused “or adjudicated delinquent for” criminal behavior. “[C]ongress’ use of the phrase ‘adjudicated delinquent’ … evinces an intent to include juveniles within the purview of the PLRA,” Hurd said. However, the court rejected the state’s argument that Lewis had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. He said a literal adherence to every element of the administrative process is not necessary, especially when, as occurred here, the facility itself often digresses from the formal procedure. Hurd said that Tryon has “demonstrated its willingness to address and investigate a complaint filed outside the formal grievance process,” and therefore that process is not the exclusive remedy. He said the informal efforts to administratively address Lewis’ complaints are sufficient to meet the exhaustion requirement. Elmer R. Keach III of Albany represents the Lewis family. Assistant Attorney General Nelson Sheinbold appeared for the state defendants.

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