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Seventh Circuit: Court Erred in Dismissing Prisoner’s Suit for Failure to Include Trust Account Ledger

by Matt Clarke

On February 7, 2017, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that a district court erred when it dismissed a prisoner’s civil rights lawsuit that was brought in forma pauperis without first evaluating his exculpatory explanation that prison staff had refused to give him a required trust account ledger to attach to his complaint.

Tuwayne Bell, an Illinois state prisoner, filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that various defendants had deliberately disregarded dangerous conditions in the prison kitchen, resulting in an injury to his foot. He included an application to proceed in forma pauperis but did not attach a printout showing his trust fund account transactions over the previous six months as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(2). Instead, he included a sworn statement that he was unable to provide the trust fund ledger because prison officials had refused to give him a copy.

The district court denied the application because the ledger was missing. Without setting a deadline, it sent Bell a warning that his case would be dismissed unless he filed a new application or paid the filing fee. The court noted Bell’s claim that prison officials had refused to give him a trust fund ledger, but did not evaluate the statement for veracity or significance. Instead, it ordered the clerk to forward a copy of the order to prison officials.

Three months later the district court dismissed the case, incorrectly stating it had ordered Bell to submit a new application “‘within thirty days’ or risk dismissal” and he had not complied with the warning. Bell appealed.

The Seventh Circuit noted the district court had failed to file a proper final judgment in the case, which allowed Bell’s otherwise tardy appeal to be heard. Bell took 71 days to file a notice of appeal because he allegedly never received the order informing him that his application was incomplete and must be resubmitted.

The Court of Appeals concluded “that the district court acted unreasonably in denying Bell’s application to proceed without prepaying fees and dismissing the suit” because it failed to first determine whether he was at fault in not supplying the required trust fund ledger. It noted that prisoners had limited control over their trust fund accounts and “it is entirely predictable that the prison would prefer to postpone [a prisoner’s] ability to pursue litigation against itself.”

Additionally, the district court incorrectly said it had placed a 30-day deadline on its instructions for Bell to submit a new application. Therefore, the order of dismissal was vacated and the case remanded for further proceedings; it remains pending on remand, where the court appointed counsel to represent Bell in July 2017. See: Bell v. Kay, 847 F.3d 866 (7th Cir. 2017). 

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Related legal case

Bell v. Kay