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Seventh Circuit Reinstates Prisoner’s Lawsuit, Rejects District Court’s IFP Concerns

by Derek Gilna

Rahim McWilliams, an Illinois state prisoner, injured his hand in a fall and filed a claim in federal court for damages, claiming lack of proper medical treatment and permanent disfigurement. He alleged he was indigent and sought a waiver of the filing fee with an in forma pauperis (IFP) form. The district court, citing the absence of some identifying information on the form, as well as contradictory language as to funds McWilliams had received, denied the IFP request and dismissed the case for failure to pay the filing fee. The Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded.

In a January 5, 2017 ruling, the appellate court noted that McWilliams had used a court-provided IFP form which included various boxes the applicant must check. It also required “prisoner applicants to provide an inmate identification number, the name of the applicant’s institution, and records from the applicant’s inmate trust account.” McWilliams had answered all the questions but neglected to name his institution and identification number.

He had also indicated on the IFP form, in response to a query as to whether he or anyone living at the same residence had received in excess of $200 from other sources not specifically listed on the form, that a “Brittany Smith” had received a “donation” of $188.

After being advised by the district court that his IFP application was insufficient, McWilliams submitted a second application, this time including his prison number and facility, and requesting appointment of counsel. However, instead of checking boxes reflecting his indigency, he merely said he was not employed and wrote “N/A” for all other questions. He also submitted data that showed he had $106.85 in his prison account and received $73.73 per month over the previous four months. The court denied his second IFP application and dismissed his complaint.

On appeal the Seventh Circuit wrote, “the information purportedly missing from [the] first IFP application was already in the court’s hands.... And the court’s conclusion that the application was inaccurate simply because McWilliams’s trust account did not show a deposit of $188 is unpersuasive; even if that amount was donated to McWilliams and not to Brittany Smith.... More importantly, we are not aware of any requirement that all financial resources available to an inmate be deposited into his or her trust account. What matters is disclosure; a district court may dismiss a complaint if a plaintiff’s allegation of poverty is untrue.”

The Court of Appeals concluded that on remand, “the district court must grant IFP and move the case forward.... [and] should take up McWilliams’s request for counsel.” See: McWilliams v. Cook County, 845 F.3d 244 (7th Cir. 2017). 

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Related legal case

McWilliams v. Cook County