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Fourth District Court of Appeals Reverses PLRA Case on Removal of Jurisdiction

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth District remanded in May 2012 to the state court a cause tested against issues of subject matter jurisdiction and improper removal to a higher court. The case was originally brought up in state court and alleged federal claims against the defendants, members of the Town of Chesterfield Police Department. Plaintiff Billy Lisenby, a “three strike” litigant under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) and barred from filing forma pauperis action, was a prisoner at Ridgeland Correctional Institution in South Carolina.

Based on federal claims and pursuant to 28 USC §§1331 and 1441, Defendants removed the action to federal district court in South Carolina. Upon recommendation of a federal magistrate and weighing Defendants’ objections to such, district court remanded in February 2010 the cause to state court. Defendants appealed on the grounds that a case involving violation of federal statute needs the attention of federal court.

The Court of Appeals first determined that 28 USC 1447 (d) (“An order remanding a case to the state court from which it was removed is not reviewable on appeal…”) was the controlling statute, but three exceptions exist to the rule, two of which applied to the instant case. The Court noted that subject matter jurisdiction, though mentioned, was never put at issue. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals concurred with the magistrate’s conclusion that the district court, by removing the case upward, could unintentionally become party to Plaintiff’s attempt to circumvent the PLRA’s Congressional intent of reducing meritless prisoner filings.

The Court of Appeals saw sufficient merit inherent in the case to warrant remand. Defendants, contesting the issue of remand, noted that nothing in the PLRA or the removal statutes defeated subject matter jurisdiction and that the district court had no authority to remand back to state court. The Supreme Court has generally agreed, but the Court of Appeals noted that the actions that are set in motion by the three-strikes rule are procedural, not jurisdictional.

The Court of Appeals found that the district court’s order of removal was not based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction or on procedural defect and was thus subject to appellate review.

Upon review the court concluded Plaintiff’s asserted federal claims against Defendants and the PLRA’s non-jurisdictional nature lent insufficient grounds to the district court to remand the case to state court and as such ordered the cause reinstated for further proceedings before district court. See: Lisenby v. Lear, 674 F.3d 259 (4th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

Lisenby v. Lear