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Premature Appeal Not Frivolous Under PLRA

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has held the Prison Litigation Reform Act’s (PLRA’s) “three strikes” provision does not encompass a dismissal for filing a premature notice of appeal.

New York prisoner Injah E. Tafari brought a civil rights action in September 2000, alleging mistreatment by various employees of the Green Haven Correctional Facility. The action was dismissed without prejudice to exhaust administrative remedies. On refiling in May, 2004, Tafari was granted in forma pauperis (IFP) status. Upon the defendants’ motion, the district court revoked that status because he had “three strikes” against him.

Under the PLRA, a dismissal is triggered if an action or appeal is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. After three such dismissals, a prisoner may not receive IFP status unless in danger of physical harm without prepaying the filing fee.

The Second Circuit began its analysis by stating, “Indigent or otherwise disadvantaged litigants are afforded a certain degree of leeway in the American court system, whether in the form of relaxed pleading standards for pro se litigants or the waiver of filing fees for those unable to afford them. However, the courts’ generosity has its limits. Frivolous litigation, for example, is precisely the sort of mischief that the courts will not abide.”

That said, the Court was confronted with the narrow question of whether an interlocutory appeal brought prior to the entry of a final judgment below is “frivolous.”

The Court stated that “prematurity alone does not render an appeal ‘malicious.’” Frivolity occurs when an appeal “lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact.” A frivolous action advances “inarguable legal conclusions” or “fanciful factual allegations.” Thus, the term “frivolous” refers to the ultimate merits of the case.

Of the three “frivolous” actions cited by defendants was an appeal the Second Circuit dismissed for lack of “to review a non-final order.” The Second Circuit said that the significance to this appeal is whether the defect is remediable.

The Court found convincing Tafari’s argument that “an appellate court’s dismissal of a premature appeal is equivalent in all relevant respects to a premature appeal is equivalent in all relevant respects to a trial court’s dismissal of an unexhausted complaint” because “both are dismissals without prejudice for failure to comply with the prerequisite of obtaining a final judgment in the prior forum.”

As “dismissal because of the prematurity of a suit” does not qualify as a strike, neither should dismissal because of the prematurity of an appeal. Such an appeal cannot be considered frivolous, for “a premature appeal is not irremediably defective, and dismissal of such an appeal is not based on a determination that it ultimately cannot succeed.”

As such, Tafari only had two strikes and should have been granted IFP status. The district court’s order was reversed. See: Tafari v. Hues, 473 F.3d 440 (2d Cir. 2006).

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Related legal case

Tafari v. Hues