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Multiple Prisoners Proceeding IFP Must Pay Separate Filing Fees

The Eleventh Circuit US Court of Appeals held that multiple prisoners, when asserting in forma pauperis (IFP) status in a federal civil rights action, cannot join their claims to pro-rate a single filing fee among all the plaintiffs.

Earnest Hubbard led a group of 18 Alabama prisoners in a pro se 42 USC §1983 Eighth Amendment civil rights complaint against Alabama prison officials alleging inadequate medical care and diet at the St. Clair Correctional Facility.

Their case stalled in US District Court (N.D. Ala.), however, when the court dismissed the joint complaint without prejudice so that each plaintiff could proceed IFP, filing a separate complaint and paying the requisite 28 USC § 1915(b) filing fee. A motion for class certification was denied.

The problem repeated itself when the plaintiffs filed a joint notice of appeal, and sought to divide the appellate filing fee. But the appellate court treated the appeal as being lead-plaintiff Hubbard's alone and required only one appellate filing fee.

Analyzing the Prison Litigation Reform Act's (PLRA) fee provisions of 28 USC §1915, the appellate court determined that Congress intended to deter prisoner litigation by imposing filing fees on indigent prisoners who declared IFP. It further found the PLRA statutory language to be unambiguous as applying to each prisoner in a civil action, and that Fed. R. Civ. Proc. Rule 20's general provisions permitting joinder of plaintiffs in a single action did not save them from the more specific provisions of 28 USC § 1915. Accordingly, each IFP prisoner was liable for the entire filing fee of $150.

PLN readers should note that the problem here can be avoided by not declaring IFP status. When not proceeding in IFP, § 1915 does not come into play. Thus, eighteen prisoners could join in one action and owe only one filing fee - as long as they pre-paid it when filing the complaint and did not petition for IFP status. While as non-IFP plaintiffs, they would then have to pay process server fees to personally serve the defendants, this would probably be small compared to 18 $150 filing fees, followed by 18 $105 appellate court filing fees. See: Hubbard v. Haley , 262 F.3d 1198 (11 th Cir. 2001).

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Related legal case

Hubbard v. Haley

[19] This court recently noted that the intent of Congress in promulgating the PLRA was to curtail abusive prisoner tort, civil rights and conditions of confinement litigation. Anderson v. Singletary, 111 F.3d 801, 805 (11th Cir.1997). In fact, several other circuits have recognized the intent of Congress to taper prisoner litigation. See e.g. Ramsey v. Coughlin, 94 F.3d 71, 73 (2nd Cir.1996) (acknowledging the "congressional purposes of reducing the state's burden of responding to frivolous actions or of deterring frivolous prisoner litigation"); Abdul-Akbar v. McKelvie, 239 F.3d 307, 331 (3rd Cir.2001) (stating that requiring IFP prisoners to pay filing fees was calculated to create an economic deterrent); Jackson v. Stinnett, 102 F.3d 132, 136-37 (5th Cir.1996) ("The fee provisions of the PLRA were designed to deter frivolous prisoner litigation in the courts 'by making all prisoners seeking to bring lawsuits or appeals feel the deterrent effect created by liability for filing fees.' ") (citation omitted); Hampton v. Hobbs, 106 F.3d 1281, 1286 (6th Cir.1997) ("The legislation was aimed at the skyrocketing numbers of claims filed by prisoners-many of which are meritless-and the corresponding burden those filings have placed on the federal courts."); Rumbles v. Hill, 182 F.3d 1064, 1070 (9th Cir.1999); In re Smith, 114 F.3d 1247, 1249 (D.C.Cir.1997).

[20] The plaintiffs contend that the district court improperly interpreted the PLRA to alter federal joinder rules so that indigent prisoners cannot participate in multi-plaintiff actions. They claim that the liberal joinder standards of Fed.R.Civ.P. 20 easily contemplate the claims brought by the 18 prisoners in this instance. "A party seeking joinder of claimants under Rule 20 must establish two prerequisites: 1) a right to relief arising out of the same transaction or occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences, and 2) some question of law or fact common to all persons seeking to be joined." Alexander v. Fulton County, Georgia, 207 F.3d 1303, 1323 (11th Cir.2000). Here, plaintiffs claim that the degree of medical care received at St. Clair and the diet available to dialysis patients at St. Clair constitute a common series of transactions giving rise to a right of relief. The common question of law is whether the defendants' actions violate the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. The district court did not pass on whether, absent the PLRA, the plaintiffs' suit would be joined properly under Rule 20. Instead, the district court adhered to the clear language of the PLRA and ruled that each prisoner must bring a separate suit in order to satisfy the Act's requirement that each prisoner pay the full filing fee.

[21] Plaintiffs argue that the PLRA should not be read to repeal Rule 20 but to harmonize with Rule 20. See Panama Canal Company v. Anderson, 312 F.2d 98, 100 (5th Cir.1963); *fn2 see also 7 Moore's Federal Practice, ¶ 86.04(4) (2d ed. 1996) ("[A] subsequently enacted statute should be so construed as to harmonize with the Federal Rules if that is at all feasible."). Such a harmonious reading of the PLRA would allow multiple prisoners to bring an IFP civil action in accordance with Rule 20 and still require the prisoners to pay the filing fee, albeit shared among the several plaintiffs. *fn3

[22] We conclude, however, that the PLRA clearly and unambiguously requires that "if a prisoner brings a civil action or files an appeal in forma pauperis, the prisoner shall be required to pay the full amount of a filing fee." 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b)(1). This court has repeatedly stated that "[w]e begin our construction of [a statutory provision] where courts should always begin the process of legislative interpretation, and where they often should end it as well, which is with the words of the statutory provision." Harris v. Garner, 216 F.3d 970, 972 (11th Cir.2000) (en banc). Moreover, the Congressional purpose in promulgating the PLRA enforces an interpretation that each prisoner pay the full filing fee. See 141 Cong. Rec. S7526 (daily ed. May 25, 1995) (statement of Sen. Kyl) ("Section 2 will require prisoners to pay a very small share of the large burden they place on the federal judicial system by paying a small filing fee upon commencement of lawsuits. In doing so, the provision will deter frivolous inmate lawsuits. The modest monetary outlay will force prisoners to think twice about the case and not just file reflexively.").

[23] Various courts have also acknowledged the problem of excessive prisoner litigation. See e.g. Cruz v. Beto, 405 U.S. 319, 327, 92 S.Ct. 1079, 31 L.Ed.2d 263 (1972) (stating that prisoners have unique incentives to file meritless or frivolous lawsuits; e.g., to attempt to obtain a "short sabbatical in the nearest federal courthouse"); Roller v. Gunn, 107 F.3d 227, 234 (4th Cir.1997) (stating that prisoners "often have free time on their hands that other litigants do not possess"); Nasim v. Warden, Md. House of Correction, 64 F.3d 951, 953-54 n. 1 (4th Cir.1995) (en banc) (stating that "all too often" prisoner litigation is initiated to harass prison officials). Finally, to the extent that the Rules Enabling Act, as expressed in Rule 20, actually conflicts with the PLRA, we hold that the statute repeals the Rule. See Mitchell v. Farcass, 112 F.3d 1483, 1489 (11th Cir.1997) ("A statute passed after the effective date of a federal rule repeals the rule to the extent that it actually conflicts.") (quoting Jackson v. Stinnett, 102 F.3d 132, 135-36 (5th Cir.1996)).

[24] Because the plain language of the PLRA requires that each prisoner proceeding IFP pay the full filing fee, we hold that the district court properly dismissed the multi-plaintiff action in this instance. Similarly, § 1915(b)(1) explicitly encompasses appellate filing fees, requiring each prisoner to pay the full amount of the appellate filing fee. The district court, therefore, correctly deemed the joint notice of appeal as a singular notice of appeal and properly assessed the appellate filing fee against appellant-Hubbard alone. With regard to both the initial filing fee and the appellate filing fee, the district court properly applied the clear language of the PLRA to require that each prisoner pay the full amount of the filing fees. For the foregoing reasons, we affirm the judgment of the district court.


Opinion Footnotes

[26] *fn1 Honorable Adrian G. Duplantier, U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Louisiana, sitting by designation.

[27] *fn2 The Eleventh Circuit adopted as binding precedent the decisions of the former Fifth Circuit rendered prior to October 1, 1981. Bonner v. City of Prichard, 661 F.2d 1206, 1209 (11th Cir.1981) (en banc).

[28] *fn3 To our knowledge, only one circuit has addressed how the PLRA affects multi-plaintiff IFP actions. In Talley-Bey v. Knebl, 168 F.3d 884 (6th Cir.1999), the Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court's division of costs between two IFP plaintiffs. While Talley-Bey adjudicated a different issue; i.e., costs taxed against multi-plaintiffs, the decision suggested that filing fees should be proportionally assessed against multi-plaintiffs as well: "Thus, any fees and costs that a district court or that we may impose must be equally divided among all the participating prisoners." Id. at 887. To the extent that the Sixth Circuit's opinion allows multi-plaintiffs who proceed IFP to avoid paying the full filing fee by joining their claims, we disagree.