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Seventh Circuit Reverses Two PLRA Dismissals for Failure to Comply with Court Forms

by Ed Lyon

On August 13, 2019, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in a consolidated ruling, vacated the dismissals of two lawsuits based on the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).

The PLRA contains a “three strikes” provision that allows a district court to dismiss a prisoner’s pro se civil rights action upon a finding that he or she had three prior filings that were found to be frivolous, malicious or failed to state a claim for relief.

Here, the appellate court reviewed the “elaborate” and rather exhaustive form the district courts for the Northern District of Illinois require all in forma pauperis applicants to complete before proceeding with their suits, characterizing it as a “local rule imposing a requirement of form” that “cannot be ‘enforced in a way that causes a party to lose any right because of a nonwillful failure to comply.’” Among other things, the form requires litigants to list all of their prior cases, including those that resulted in PLRA strikes.

On October 20, 2017, Illinois state prisoner Fabian Greyer filed two civil rights actions. His only prior court filing was a habeas corpus petition. The district court ordered Greyer to explain why he did not list his habeas case and the contemporaneous suit as prior filings. Greyer responded that he was mentally ill, functionally illiterate and traded his food for legal help from other prisoners, and begged the court for assistance. The district court held his answer was “non-responsive” and dismissed his complaint with prejudice. No “explicit findings about whether Greyer’s omissions were either intentional or material, as required for a finding of fraud,” were made by the court.

On December 18, 2017, another Illinois prisoner, Michael Johnson, filed a civil rights lawsuit. He had an extensive litigation history and complied with the district court’s form as completely as he could, but forgot to list two of his prior filings and a third in which he was only mentioned. The court dismissed Johnson’s case with prejudice, again making “no findings why the omissions [in the form] were material.” The Seventh Circuit noted that while Johnson may be an experienced litigant, he was not very knowledgeable as he had not won any of his prior cases, though he had never incurred a PLRA strike, either.

Confirming that district courts have the inherent power to dismiss lawsuits that fail to comply with PLRA requirements, the Court of Appeals limited its review to areas involving clear error and abuse of discretion.

The Court wrote that the judiciary’s “sanctioning power is not unbounded,” and should “be exercised with restraint and discretion.” It added, “As we have stressed, in all but the most extreme situations courts should consider whether a lesser sanction than dismissal with prejudice would be appropriate.... Most importantly, courts must make factual findings that adequately support any use of their inherent sanctioning powers.”

After determining that neither Greyer nor Johnson had misled or defrauded the district courts by their omissions on the forms, and that the omissions were not PLRA strikes and not intentional or material, the Seventh Circuit reversed the dismissals and remanded the cases to their respective district courts for further proceedings. See: Greyer v. Illinois Department of Corrections, 933 F.3d 871 (7th Cir. 2019). 

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