Monday, May 18, 2015

Supreme Court Interprets Indigent Prisoner Litigation Statute

The U.S. Supreme Court today in Coleman v. Tollefson, (Sup. Ct., May 18, 2015), gave a literal interpretation to the "three strikes" provision of 28 USC Sec. 1915(g) that restricts the ability of inmates to bring multiple challenges to prison conditions without paying the required filing fees.  The section, which qualifies the right of indigent inmates to file federal lawsuits in forma pauperis, provides:
In no event shall a prisoner bring a civil action or appeal a judgment in a civil action or proceeding under this section if the prisoner has, on 3 or more prior occasions, while incarcerated or detained in any facility, brought an action or appeal in a court of the United States that was dismissed on the grounds that it is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, unless the prisoner is under imminent danger of serious physical injury.
In an opinion by Justice Breyer, the Court held unanimously that a dismissal which is under appeal still counts as one of the "three strikes" to prevent an additional lawsuit from being filed.  The Court left open the question of whether this interpretation also would preclude an appeal of a trial court decision that was itself the third strike. Today's decision upholds the view of the 6th Circuit below, and rejects a contrary interpretation by a number of other Circuits.  The decision will particularly impact inmates seeking religious accommodations from prison systems, since these cases rarely if ever will fall within the "imminent danger of serious physical injury" exception.