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Exhaustion of Remedies

The exhaustion-of-remedies doctrine requires that procedures established by statute, COMMON LAW, contract, or custom must be initiated and followed in certain cases before an aggrieved party may seek relief from the courts. After all other available remedies have been exhausted, a lawsuit may be filed.

Most commonly, exhaustion of remedies applies where an ADMINISTRATIVE AGENCY has been established by Congress to handle grievances that occur under its purview. For example, if a dispute arises over a provision in a labor contract, the parties may be required to follow specific grievance procedures administered by the NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS BOARD (NLRB). After the parties have satisfied each requirement of the grievance process, and the NLRB has reached its final decision, they may appeal the decision to a higher tribunal.

The rationale behind requiring parties to exhaust their administrative remedies is that the agencies have the specialized personnel, experience, and expertise to sort and decide matters that arise under their jurisdiction. Also, the doctrine of SEPARATION OF POWERS dictates that an agency created by Congress should be allowed to carry out its duties without undue interference from the judiciary.

The exhaustion-of-remedies doctrine also applies in certain classes of cases where state remedies must be exhausted before a party may pursue a case in federal court. In these situations, exhaustion of remedies is a rule of comity, or courtesy, by which federal courts defer to state courts to make the initial determination as to all claims, federal or state, raised in a case. For example, petitions for HABEAS CORPUS (release from unlawful imprisonment) by an inmate of a state prison are not heard by a federal court until after all state remedies are exhausted (see Darr v. Burford, 339 U.S. 200, 70 S. Ct. 587, 94 L. Ed. 761 [1950]).

As with most legal doctrines, there are exceptions to the exhaustion-of-remedies requirement. A party bringing a CIVIL RIGHTS action under 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983 is not required to exhaust state remedies before filing suit in federal court. In Patsy v. Board of Regents, 457 U.S. 496, 102 S. Ct. 2557, 73 L. Ed. 2d 172 (1982), the Supreme Court held that the plaintiff—who claimed she was denied employment by a state university because of her race and her sex—was not required to exhaust her state administrative

This .22-caliber revolver used by John Hinckley in his assassination attempt against President Ronald Reagan was submitted as evidence in Hinckley's 1982 trial. An exhibit is tangible evidence submitted to a court for inspection during the course of trial proceedings.

remedies before filing her suit in federal court, because such a requirement would be inconsistent with congressional intent in passing civil rights legislation.

Similarly, a criminal defense exception has been carved out by the Court. It allows a criminal defendant to raise the defense of improper administrative procedure even in cases where the defendant failed to exhaust all available administrative remedies. For example, in McKart v. United States, 395 U.S. 185, 89 S. Ct. 1657, 23 L. Ed. 2d 194 (1969), the defendant—who was charged with failure to report for induction into the armed services—was allowed to claim that his draft classification was invalid even though he had failed to pursue administrative remedies.

Finally, courts may allow an exception to the exhaustion-of-remedies doctrine where administrative remedies are inadequate or would cause irreparable harm. In a case involving a claim of WRONGFUL DISCHARGE from employment, the Supreme Court held that the plaintiff—who may have had to wait up to ten years to be heard by the administrative agency—was not required to exhaust available administrative remedies before commencing a court action (Walker v. Southern Ry., 385 U.S. 196, 87 S. Ct. 365, 17 L. Ed. 2d 294 [1966]).


Donnellan, Rebecca L. 2001. "The Exhaustion Doctrine Should Not Be a Doctrine with Exceptions." West Virginia Law Review 103 (spring): 361–86.

Funk, William. 2000. "Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies—New Dimensions Since Darby." Pace Environmental Law Review 18 (winter): 1–18.

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