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PLRA Does Not Permit Waiver of Court-ordered Answer

An Illinois federal district court has condemned a practice employed by the Illinois Attorney General when representing defendants in lawsuits brought by prisoners. The district court concluded that a motion for leave to waive an answer is unnecessary, and that the assertion of affirmative defenses in a pleading purporting to be a “waiver” of the defendants’ obligation to file an answer is not permitted by statute or rule.

In the case at issue, the defendants’ motion for leave to waive an answer was filed in response to the court’s order that they answer the complaint. The motion relied upon the language of 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(g)(1). The district court noted that that provision of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) “allows defendants to conserve resources by waiving their right to reply to potentially frivolous or meritless claims.” It does not require the defendants to request a waiver to file an answer unless ordered to do so by the court upon a finding the claim has a reasonable chance of prevailing on the merits.

Once a district court orders an answer from the defendants they must comply, and the PLRA does not provide that their answer may deviate from the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Moreover, the PLRA states the court may not grant relief to a prisoner-plaintiff until the defendants file an answer, making the answer essential to the litigation.

The district court noted the defendants may generally deny the allegations in a complaint under Rule 8(b)(3), but may not respond by continuing to waive their answer “while simultaneously purporting to plead affirmative defenses.” The defendants’ motion, the court held, failed to comply with its order to answer the complaint.

The district court gave the defendants one week to file an answer and said failure to do so would result in their having “admitted the allegations of the amended complaint.” See: Boclair v. Hardy, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 11-cv-05217; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14278.

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