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California Prisoner IFP State Civil Filing Fee Statutes Interpreted

by John E. Dannenberg

In an important ruling for all California in forma pauperis (IFP) prisoner state civil complaint plaintiffs, the California Court of Appeal interpreted the application of the mandatory prisoner civil filing fee statutes, Government Code (GC) § 68511.3 and Penal Code (PC) § 2601.

Phillip Sanders had filed a civil rights complaint in Los Angeles Superior Court against prison officials. He asked the court for a waiver of court fees per California Rules of Court § 985(i), which was granted. A year later in the proceedings, defendants complained that the court did not have jurisdiction because Sanders had not paid the filing fees mandated by GC § 68511.3 and PC § 2601. The trial court, in granting a motion to dismiss that argued non-payment of a filing fee divests a court of jurisdiction (citing Davis v. Superior Court, 184 Cal. 691, 693-95 (1921)), further held that equitable tolling would be applied against arguments regarding the statute of limitations.

The court of appeals disagreed with the trial court and the defendants. First, it held that the original fee waiver ruling, because it had never been vacated, was still in force. The appellate court noted that even an illegal order must be followed until abated or overruled. Here, Sanders had been wrongfully denied access to the courts not for failing to pay a filing fee, but for not having followed the statutory procedures for gaining a court-set fee-payment schedule per the provisions of GC § 68511.3. But that statute does not provide for the harsh remedy of termination of an action for failure to follow the procedures; indeed, dismissal for lack of funds is expressly prohibited in § 68511.3(e)(5). The appellate court ruled that Sanders should simply be permitted to correct his deficient procedures as to the fee determination.

Accordingly, the appeals court reversed and remanded to the trial court to (1) vacate its (illegal) order waiving fees and costs, (2) file Sanders? recently submitted certified statement of account, and (3) determine fees as required by GC § 68511.3(e). See: Sanders v. Yarborough, 137 Cal.App.4th 764, 40 Cal.Rptr.3d 565 (Cal.App. 2 Dist., 2006).

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