Sunday, August 01, 1999

BENCHMARKS


Can judge reject inmate suit?

BY BEN KAUFMAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 requires judges to dismiss frivolous lawsuits without even waiting for a request by defendants.

        Highest on the list for this new scrutiny are suits in forma pauperis, that is, complaints filed by indigent inmates for whom courts traditionally waived court fees.

        That historic policy allowed inmates to file seemingly endless suits against state and local officials involved in prisoners' prosecutions and incarceration.

        One such suit was filed by a white Ohio inmate. He said his rights were violated because providing basketball courts for exercise favored black prisoners and whites should be allowed to pitch horseshoes.

        That and similar frivolous complaints burdened courts and government lawyers who had to respond to every filing until a judge finally dismissed the suits. That could take months or years.

Differing interpretations
        The 1995 act ended that free ride.

        Now, indigents may request permission to file in forma pauperis only with a binding pledge to make regular payments until court fees are paid in full.

        Interpreting the 1995 act, however, has created conflicting results and a troubling question within the 6th Circuit: Are frivolous complaints where all of the filing fees are paid up front subject to the same early screening and dismissal?

        Congress' language didn't help.

        “Notwithstanding any filing fee, or portion thereof, that may have been paid,” judges are required to dismiss suits that lack any valid federal claim or when defendants are immune from liability.

        Obviously, different judges see claims and immunity differently. They also disagree on whether apparently frivolous suits, regardless of whether fees were paid or inmates are involved, are subject to summary dismissal.

        For instance, contradictory rulings were handed down in appeals by Geoffrey Benson of Chardon, Ohio, who sued officials involved in the search and seizure of his property.

        In the latest case, U.S. District Judge George W. White invoked the 1995 act and dismissed the complaint on the mistaken assumption that Mr. Benson filed in forma pauperis. He didn't.

        He wasn't in jail, and he paid full filing fees up front.

        Mr. Benson appealed and won. Regardless of their merits, that exempted his claims from early dismissal, the 6th Circuit said.

        Moreover, Judges Damon Keith, Martha Craig Daughtrey and Karen Nelson Moore used his case to resolve the 6th Circuit's internal confusion on the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995.

        A summary dismissal “applies only to in forma pauperis proceedings,” Judge Moore wrote for the unanimous court.

Potential headaches
        Most obviously, she continued, the troublesome section of the 1995 act is titled, “Proceedings in forma pauperis.” Moreover, that section reflects the 1995 act's revision and renumbering of an older law that “clearly applied only to in forma pauperis actions.”

        Finally, Judge Moore wrote, any other conclusion would obligate federal trial judges “to screen all complaints filed and dismiss those that are found to be deficient.”

        And that, she continued, would be untenable for at least two reasons:

        • It would render the tough, new scrutiny of inmate suits — a primary goal of Congress when it passed the act in 1995 — “largely superfluous.”

        • It would undo a broad policy of warning other plaintiffs of impending dismissals so they can amend their complaints to meet perceived weaknesses.

        “We very much doubt that the drafters of the Prison Litigation Reform Act intended to effectuate such a sweeping change in our entire civil litigation practice, and we see no indication in the legislative history or in the structure of the Act that this was their purpose,” Judge Moore wrote.

        (Previous opinions in Mr. Benson's appeals were handed down in a form that affected only that case before the court and did not establish a precedent binding all federal appellate and trial judges throughout the 6th Circuit. This latest decision was issued in binding form and becomes law throughout the four-state area.)

        Days after that decision, another 6th Circuit panel said U.S. District Judge James L. Graham in Columbus mistakenly dismissed a far stranger case under the same section of the Prison Litigation Reform Act.

        Thomas L. Apple sued then-Sen. John Glenn, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and others, saying their failure to respond to his letters violated his 1st Amendment right to petition his government.

A hollow victory
        Mr. Apple appealed and won his point, if not his case.

        “Apple, however, is neither a prisoner nor proceeding in forma pauperis,” Judges Damon Keith, Cornelia Kennedy and Ronald Gilman said, and his complaint could not be dismissed summarily under the Prison Litigation Reform Act.

        However, the judges refused to reopen it, “given the total implausibility of Apple's claims. ... A citizen's right to petition the government does not guarantee a response to the petition or the right to compel government officials to act on or adopt a citizen's views.”

        And they said Judge Graham should have dismissed the complaint under a far older doctrine — that is, the absence of any federal claim put it outside his jurisdiction.

       



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