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Seventh Circuit Asks Illinois Supreme Court to Interpret "Frivolous" Litigation Statute

Seventh Circuit Asks Illinois Supreme Court to Interpret "Frivolous" Litigation Statute

In an August 29, 2012 decision, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals asked the Illinois Supreme Court to interpret a state law that authorizes the revocation of prisoners' good-conduct credits for engaging in frivolous litigation. However, the Court of Appeals subsequently dismissed the case as moot after state officials restored the petitioner's good-conduct credits.

The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) is authorized to revoke up to 180 days of a prisoner's good-conduct credits if, during the course of litigation against the state, the IDOC, the Prisoner Review Board or officers or employees thereof, "the court makes a specific finding that a pleading, motion, or other paper filed by the prisoner is frivolous," pursuant to 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d).

In February 2001, Dixon Correctional Center prisoner Paul Eichwedel filed a federal lawsuit against twenty-three IDOC officials. On initial screening, the district court allowed Eichwedel to proceed in forma pauperis.

Several months later the defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim and Eichwedel moved for sanctions on the mistaken belief that the court had determined upon initial screening he had stated a claim. Eichwedel then filed a second sanctions motion, arguing that the defendants "had mischaracterized the facts and the law in their response to his first motion for sanctions."

The district court entered separate orders denying both sanctions motions "as frivolous," explaining that it had not conducted a merits review on initial screening. The case proceeded and eventually settled.

However, within two weeks of the court's orders concerning Eichwedel's motions for sanctions, the IDOC held a disciplinary hearing and found that each motion violated 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d). The IDOC revoked 60 days of good-conduct credit for the first motion and 120 days for the second motion.

After unsuccessfully trying to exhaust state court remedies – due in part to the trial court misinforming him about the appellate process – Eichwedel filed a habeas petition in federal court asserting "(1) that 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d) is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments; (2) that, as applied to him, 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d) and 730 ILCS 5/3-3-2(a)(8) violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments; and (3) that the revocation of his good-conduct credits deprived him of liberty without due process in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment." The district court denied the petition; Eichwedel appealed and was appointed counsel to represent him on appeal.

The Seventh Circuit examined Eichwedel's access-to-court claim, in which he asserted "that 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d) has a 'strong chilling effect' that 'impermissibly discourages prisoners from seeking to pursue valid claims by heightening the risk of filing lawsuits.'" However, the appellate court found he failed to establish that the statute had "hindered his efforts to pursue a legal claim." Importantly, the Court of Appeals also noted that Eichwedel did not allege "that any prison official invoked 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d) in retaliation" for his litigation.

Turning to Eichwedel's due process claim, the Seventh Circuit explained that determining whether there was "some evidence" that Eichwedel had violated the statute turned upon the use of the term "frivolous" in 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d). "Frivolous" was statutorily defined as when a legal document meets any one of five criteria, including lacking "an arguable basis either in law or in fact." Eichwedel argued that the court had not made a specific finding of frivolousness within the meaning of 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d) with respect to his sanctions motions.

The Court of Appeals was troubled by the state court's broad interpretation of the statute. "Given the significant possibility that the state trial court did not take into account appropriately the legislative concerns in crafting 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d)," the appellate court was "reluctant to employ its [own] interpretation."

The Seventh Circuit noted that intervening decisions by Illinois state courts heightened its unease. "For instance, in People v. Collier, 387 Ill. App. 3d 630, 900 N.E.2d 396, 406, 326 Ill. Dec. 760 (Ill. App. Ct. 2008), the court found a trial court's order revoking a prisoner's good-conduct credits 'disquieting' where its order contained 'none of' the 'five separate criteria' listed in 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d)(1) in addition to other flaws not relevant for present purposes. Collier suggests, therefore, that a court must indicate which of the five statutory definitions of frivolousness it is invoking in order for 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d) to be satisfied."

Rather than interpret the statute, the Court of Appeals instead elected to certify the question to the Illinois Supreme Court.

"Because Mr. Eichwedel's sufficiency of the evidence claim turns on an unresolved question of state law, specifically, the interpretation of 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d), and because that question is likely to reoccur frequently and affects the administration of justice in both the state and federal courts, we respectfully seek the assistance of the Supreme Court of Illinois by certifying this controlling question of law," the appellate court wrote. See: Eichwedel v. Chandler, 696 F.3d 660 (7th Cir. 2012).

The Illinois Supreme Court accepted the Seventh Circuit's request to resolve the question of law; however, before the Supreme Court could answer the question, the state restored all of Eichwedel's good-conduct credits that had been revoked and Eichwedel was released on mandatory supervision.

Consequently, the state moved to dismiss the appeal as moot "because Mr. Eichwedel now has received all of the relief that he seeks in this habeas action." The Court of Appeals agreed, holding that the matter was moot and did not meet any of the exceptions to a finding of mootness. The appellate court therefore withdrew its certified question to the Illinois Supreme Court and dismissed Eichwedel's appeal.

The Seventh Circuit noted that the case had become moot prior to its initial ruling in August 2012 but it had not been informed of such by the attorneys for either party. "We are aware, of course, of the difficulties that counsel experience in keeping in touch with an incarcerated individual and of the difficulties presented to government counsel in dealing with client agencies," the Court wrote. "With respect to the latter situation, this case suggests that communication between the Office of the Attorney General of Illinois and IDOC needs to be reevaluated and improved." See: Eichwedel v. Curry, 700 F.3d 275 (7th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

Eichwedel v. Curry