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No More Than 20 Percent Can Be Deducted To Pay Filing Fees

The provision of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) authorizing monthly deductions from a prisoner’s account to satisfy the filing fee in a civil case does not permit prison officials to deduct more than 20 percent of a prisoner’s income, regardless of the number of cases or appeals the prisoner has filed, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit decided July 13, 2010.

The Fourth Circuit’s decision comes in response to a motion for return of fees filed by Don Juan Torres. Torres had been granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis in two appeals after the district court dismissed two suits for failure to state a claim.

Under the PLRA, a prisoner proceeding in forma pauperis is required to pay the full filing fee in a civil case or appeal, albeit in installments.

The monthly installments, according to the statute, must be equal to “20 percent of the preceding month’s income credited to the prisoner’s account.” 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b)(2). The prisoner must have at least $10 in their account, though, before any deductions can occur. Id.

In Torres’ case, prison officials interpreted § 1915(b)(2) as requiring a 20 percent deduction from Torres’ account for each of his appeals, amounting to a 40 percent deduction in total. Torres objected and asked for a refund for 20 percent of the fees, which was referred to the court of appeals.

Putting itself amongst the minority of a circuit split on the issue, the Fourth Circuit held that § 1915(b)(2) operates on a per prisoner basis. In other words, § 1915(b)(2) only permits the deduction of 20 percent of a prisoner’s income, “regardless of the number of cases or appeals the inmate has filed,” the court held.

The court acknowledged that its holding was contrary to decisions from the Fifth, Seventh, and Eighth Circuits. The Fifth Circuit, for example, took a plain language approach in holding that § 1915(b)(2) applied to each case or appeal a prisoner files, effectively permitting 100 percent of a prisoner’s funds to be taken to pay filing fees. See Atchinson v. Collins, 288 F.3d 177, 180 (5th Cir. 2002).

The Seventh Circuit, on the other hand, found § 1915(b)(2) to be silent with respect to “whether the 20-percent-of-income payment is per case or per prisoner.” Newlin v. Helman, 123 F.3d 429, 436 (7th Cir. 1997). The Seventh Circuit ended up adopting the “per case” interpretation on the basis that prisoners could postpone full payment of fees until after release, effectively making collection impossible. Id. at 436. The Eighth Circuit adopted the Seventh Circuit’s approach without analysis. Lefkowitz v. Citi-Equity Group, Inc., 146 F.3d 609, 612 (8th Cir. 1998).

The Fourth Circuit agreed with the Seventh Circuit that § 1915(b)(2) is “silent” on whether monthly installments should be on a per case or per prisoner basis, but that is where their agreement ended. The better approach, the Fourth Circuit concluded, was to apply § 1915(b)(2) on a per prisoner basis, adopting the Second Circuit’s approach in Whitfield v. Scully, 241 F.3d 264, 276 (2d Cir. 2001).

According to the Fourth Circuit, a “per prisoner” approach was the best reading of the statute, satisfying “Congress’ intent in passing the PLRA,” while protecting “the constitutional rights of inmates.” To permit the “garnishment of more than twenty percent of an indigent inmate’s already meager income,” the court wrote, “crosses the line from deterrence to punishment and was not the intent behind § 1915.”

Furthermore, adopting a “per case” approach would “present a constitutional problem of access to courts for prisoners,” the court concluded. “Adoption of a ‘per case’ rule would pose genuine risks of constitutional violations and abuses that do not rise to the level of imminent serious physical injury, would never come to the court’s attention because prisoners would hesitate to file complaints; it would place additional burdens on the prisoner’s finances, [i]n essence . . . forc[ing] prisoner to choose between saving their meager income and searching for a remedy for abuses in prison,” the court wrote.

In the end, though, the court declined to grant Torres’ request for reimbursement of the excess filing fees Torres paid, noting Torres had been released from custody. The court, however, absolved Torres of having to pay the remainder of his two appellate filing fees, citing DeBlasio v. Gilmore, 315 F.3d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 2003)(holding that “the PLRA fee requirements are not applicable to a released prisoner”) but see Gay v. Texas Dep’t of Corres State Jail Div., 117 F.3d 240, 241 (5th Cir. 1997). See: Torres v. O’Quinn, 612 F.3d 237 (4th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Torres v. O’Quinn