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D.C. Circuit Reverses Res Judicata Dismissal; Failure to Treat HCV Constitutes “Imminent Danger”

The United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed a lower court’s dismissal of a pro se prisoner’s suit, on res judicata grounds. The court also granted the prisoner leave to appeal in forma pauperis.

In 1988, Jibril Ibrahim was convicted of several crimes in the District of Columbia (D.C.) and sentenced to life imprisonment. He is confined in a Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facility because the BOP is responsible for the custody of D.C. felons.

“Since his incarceration, Ibrahim has filed approximately 138 civil claims in federal court. Ibrahim’s ‘profuse and meritless filings’ prompted the United States District6 Court for the District of Columbia to issue an injunction in 1993, prohibiting him from filing further suits without first obtaining the District Court’s approval. Anderson v. D.C. Pub. Defender Svc., 881 FSupp 663, 670 (D.DC 1995).” Ibrahim must “demonstrate that his claim is in good faith and not frivolous, has a tenable basis, and is not precluded by previous suits. Id. At 666.”

In 2004, Ibrahim was granted leave to sue D.C. officials for failing to treat his prostate cancer. The suit was subsequently dismissed, however, because Ibrahim improperly sought to hold the D.C. liable for alleged misconduct of BOP officials.

In 2005, Ibrahim again sought leave to file suit, raising claims against D.C. and BOP officials related to denial of treatment of his prostate cancer and Hepatitis C infection. He also asserted “a smorgasbord of wrongdoings by the defendants.” The court granted leave to proceed. The court subsequently granted the D.C. Defendants’ motion to dismiss, agreeing that all of Ibrahim’s claims were barred by the 2004 dismissal, upon res judicata grounds. The court sua sponte dismissed “Ibrahim’s claims against the federal defendants, concluding he had failed to state a valid claim under the ADA, which the court viewed as the sole basis for federal jurisdiction.”

Ibrahim appealed, paying “$100, less than half of the $255 fee required to file a notice of appeal. The Clerk ordered Ibrahim to show cause why his appeal should not be dismissed for failure to pay the filing fee. In response, Ibrahim argued that he qualified to appeal in forma pauperis because he was ‘under imminent danger of serious physical injury.’ 28 USC § 1915(g).” The Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit discharged the Show Cause Order, appointed amicus curiae to represent Ibrahim’s interests, “and directed the parties to address both the merits of Ibrahim’s appeal and whether he should be permitted to appeal in forma pauperis.”

The court agreed with Ibrahim that it is “clear that failure to provide adequate treatment for Hepatitis C, a chronic and potentially fatal disease, constitutes ‘imminent danger.’” Additionally, it had “no difficulty concluding that a chronic disease that could result in serious harm or even death constitutes ‘serious physical injury.’” Accordingly, the court concluded “that Ibrahim qualifies for the exception to the ‘three strikes’ rule. See 28 USC § 1915(g),” and granted him leave to appeal in forma pauperis.

Turning to the merits, the court found that Ibrahim’s prostate cancer claim was “no more than a reprise of his pervious dismissal,” based upon the same cause of action, and involving the same parties. Therefore, that claim was properly dismissed as being barred on res judicata grounds. The court found, however, that none of his other claims were the subject of the 2004 suit and, therefore, should not have been dismissed on res judicata grounds. See: Ibrahim v. District of Columbia, 463 F.3d 3 (DC Cir. 2006).

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Related legal case

Ibrahim v. District of Columbia