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PLRA Requires each Prisoner Plaintiff to Pay Full Filing Fee

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a Wisconsin District Court’s order that held each prisoner proceeding in forma pauperis (IFP) must pay the full $150 filing fee.

This action was filed by four prisoners at Wisconsin’s top-security prison, seeking relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. They asked the district court to allow them to proceed IFP. Without having the defendants served with process, the district court dismissed the complaints

The Seventh Circuit noted that Fed.R.Civ.P.20 authorizes the joinder of claims and parties. This means that claims related enough to be handled together are related enough for purposes of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), or as applied to the case, 28 U.S.C. § 1915 (g).

Under § 1915, prisoners incur a strike, with a limit of three, for IFP complaints or appeals that were “dismissed on the grounds that it is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” Thus, when any claim or complaint is dismissed on that basis, all plaintiffs incur a strike. For prisoners, the risks of joint litigation may exceed the gains of sharing one filing fee, the court said.

The Seventh Circuit held the PLRA does not repeal or modify Rule 20, so district courts must accept complaints filed by multiple prisoners if the criteria of permissive joinder are satisfied. This, however, creates administrative problems if there is only one filing fee per suit rather than per litigant. A court would have to determine how to apportion the fee, who can proceed IFP and who cannot because of “strikes,” and who should be assessed strikes for dismissed claims.

The only other circuit to decide this question held the PLRA modified the norm in civil litigation, requiring each litigant to pay the full fee. [PLN, September 2002]. The Seventh Circuit held it was aligning itself with the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling in Hubbard v. Haley 262  F.2d 1194 (11th Cir. 2001), for no other conclusion can be reached from

§ 1915’s  language, which states, “if a prisoner brings a civil action or files an appeal in forma pauperis, the prisoner shall be required to pay the full amount of the filing fee.”

The court said district courts should consider alerting prisoners that they will be held accountable for their co-plaintiff’s claims and they can opt out of the suit. Moreover, complaints about prison-wide practices do not require more than one plaintiff.

The district court’s order of dismissal was reversed and remanded for action consistent with the opinion. See: Boriboune v. Berge, 391 F. 3d 852 (7th Cir. 2004) Case No. 04-1847.

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Related legal case

Boriboune v. Berge