“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties.
In a dissent from the July decision in Taylor v. Grubbs, Trump 4th Circuit Judge Julius Richardson claimed that when a district court dismisses three lawsuits concerning improper prison practices by an incarcerated person at around the same time, the individual cannot appeal even one of those rulings unless he or she prepays the full filing fee, and cannot seek to waive or defer such costs based on lack of money. Even Richardson conceded his position was “harsh,” and the majority explained that it violates the law.
Congress has long provided that people who are incarcerated and who live in poverty may seek to proceed “in forma pauperis” (IFP) without prepayment of filing and other fees. Congress has also stated that they must pay a partial fee and then make installment payments based on resources available to them. In addition, as part of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), Congress enacted a “three strikes and you’re out” rule. Specifically, PLRA states that a prisoner cannot seek IFP status if “on 3 or more prior occasions” he or she brought a suit that was dismissed as a matter of law or as frivolous.
Therl Taylor, a resident of South Carolina who is incarcerated in a state prison, brought three lawsuits against prison employees and others in 2015-16, contending that they had 1) denied him access to mailroom services and interfered with his ability to petition the courts; 2) improperly transferred him to another prison unit; and 3) later improperly transferred him to a different unit and confiscated his personal belongings. A federal district court judge issued three orders on the same day that dismissed all three lawsuits as a matter of law which, according to the state, assigned Taylor all “three strikes” under PLRA.
The 4th Circuit majority, however, rejected the claim that Taylor could not apply for IFP status in appealing the dismissals, including the third dismissal, under the “three strikes” rule of PLRA. The text of the law, the majority noted, refers to dismissal on three or more “prior occasions.” The “ordinary meaning” of the term “prior,” the majority explained, refers to “dismissals in other actions, but not in the underlying dismissal that is on appeal.” The contrary view, the majority went on, would effectively “read out” the term “prior” in the statute and contradict court precedent.
Richardson disagreed. He contended primarily that a Supreme Court PLRA ruling that an incarcerated person could not seek IFP status for additional lawsuits while his “third strike” was pending on appeal meant that each of Taylor’s dismissals counted as a separate strike. But as the majority explained, the Court had specifically “left open” the question of whether an incarcerated person can seek IFP status when appealing what would be a third strike. In fact, the majority pointed out, the Court’s decision “did not focus on the meaning of the term ‘prior’” or “determine whether a dismissal in the underlying case on appeal” counts as a “prior occasion.”
In short, the majority explained, the view advocated by Richardson and the state “would prevent Taylor from proceeding in forma pauperis on appeal from any of his three dismissals.” In large measure, the majority went on, this was because of the lower court’s “docket management practices” in dismissing all three of his lawsuits at around the same time – an “arbitrary result” that was not “intended” or provided for in the PLRA.
Even as properly interpreted, the PLRA has received significant criticism as making it much more difficult for incarcerated people to receive “a fair hearing in court” on claims of abusive and improper prison practices and conditions. Views like those of Judge Richardson, which would make PLRA more harsh than written and intended, would make a bad situation even worse for incarcerated people who live in poverty.