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Collection-Rate of Appellate Costs Taxed to Prisoner Reduced to Rate for PLRA Filing-Fees

by John E. Dannenberg

The Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held that the payment of $1,619 in costs owed to Michigan state by an unsuccessful prisoner litigator could not be deducted from his prison trust account at a rate faster than that approved for collecting unpaid Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) filing fees.

McComb Correctional Center prisoner Christopher Skinner, pro se, sued four state employees for garnishing his prison wages to pay off court-awarded costs stemming from a previous unsuccessful 42 U.S.C. § 1983 lawsuit against the prison. Skinner complained in this case that (1) the language of the PLRA trumped Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure (FRAP) 39, so as to disallow the $1,619 (prevailing defendants?) cost award; (2) seizing 100% of his monthly prison trust account balance to collect those costs violated the PLRA; and (3) he was owed both the return of past overcharges and damages against Michigan officials. The U.S. District Court (E.D. Mich.) denied his claims, and he appealed.

The Sixth Circuit reviewed the relevant statutes, FRAP 39 and 28 U.S.C. § 1915(f) [PLRA], to determine how costs taxed against a losing prisoner litigant should be handled. First, the appellate court noted that Skinner had not timely objected to the $1,619 cost award. Moreover, Skinner?s argument that he was immunized from FRAP 39 by the later-enacted PLRA provision was rejected by the court. The appeals court noted that no such intent was visible in the record of the PLRA?s enactment, and that such an interpretation made no sense.

While thus denying Skinner?s attack on the award of such costs, the court found merit in his argument regarding paying for those costs. Skinner complained that an in forma pauperis litigant was protected in the collection of cost awards the same as for PLRA filing fees (20% of the previous month?s income in excess of $10). The court agreed and ordered the state to stop taking 100% per month out of Skinner?s account. But the relief was only ordered prospectively. The Sixth Circuit held that 11th Amendment immunity sheltered the state from excessive takings already collected. The court further ruled that defendant Govorchin (the state Deputy Attorney General) was absolutely immune from suit because the excessive collection was done in performance of his official duties.

In sum, PLN prisoner readers should note that a court can award defendants? appellate costs against them if they lose their appeal. But if they get stuck with the bill, the rate of collection from their prison trust account is limited by § 1915(f) of the PLRA. See: Skinner v. Govorchin, 463 F.3d 518 (6th Cir. 2006).

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Related legal case

Skinner v. Govorchin