What is the Exhaustion of Remedies?

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  • Written By: Toni Henthorn
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 02 March 2020
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The doctrine of exhaustion of remedies compels aggrieved parties to use all available measures already established by agreement, law, or custom to rectify a problem before requesting relief from a court. According to this doctrine, an aggrieved person must seek a remedy first from the local governing authority or administrative agency that oversees the policies or statutes that the person claims have been violated. After the complaining party has exhausted the available remedies within the responsible jurisdiction or agency, he may file a petition in court. In addition to freeing up clogged court dockets, the intent of the doctrine of exhaustion of remedies is to recognize and support the validity of the decision-making process of lower courts and agencies, where personnel may be better equipped to deal with matters that occur locally. The doctrine of exhaustion also guards the independence of government agencies under the separation of powers doctrine.


For example, if a United States complainant has a grievance on an energy-related issue, he must first go through the established channels within the Department of Energy (DOE). The doctrine of exhaustion of remedies is satisfied if at least 180 days elapse from the date of the complaint with no response from the DOE or if the DOE renders any judgment adverse to the interests of the complainant. An aggrieved person, after moving through the procedures designed to address problems at the DOE, may then file a civil law suit in a U.S. District Court. He must give 30 days notice to the department, the U.S. Attorney General and the respondent that specifically states the alleged infringement, the requested remedy, and any demands for court costs and attorney’s fees.

Most federal courts enforce the doctrine in criminal cases, requiring the accused criminal or inmate to deplete all state remedies before filing a case in the federal system. Federal rulings have upheld the doctrine in cases of state prisoners who have claimed unlawful detention under habeas corpus petitions. This represents a form of comity or consideration to the state systems, allowing them to correct any errors and manage the issues themselves, if possible. Closely related to the doctrine of exhaustion, the doctrine of abstention maintains that federal courts should refrain from making decisions on a federal level until the state court has addressed the issue on a local level.

Exceptions to the doctrine of exhaustion of remedies do exist. For example, the doctrine of exhaustion of remedies does not pertain to federal civil rights cases. In some cases, criminal defendants may file suit in a federal court by claiming an improper administrative procedure on the state level without fully satisfying the doctrine of exhaustion of remedies. Additionally, courts grant exemptions in situations where the remedies are inadequate, potentially harmful, or unfairly delayed.


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