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New York District Court Erred in Applying “Three Strike” Rule to Dismissals

by Kevin Bliss

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals held on September 12, 2019 that William Escalera, Jr. was not barred from proceeding in forma pauperis and filing a complaint after a New York district court found he had three strikes under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g). Of the five prior cases filed by Escalera examined by the Court of Appeals, three did not qualify as actions dismissed as frivolous or malicious, or that failed to state a claim.

Escalera filed a 42 U.S.C § 1983 complaint that was dismissed by the district court on June 22, 2017, without addressing the merits. The court determined that five of Escalera’s previous actions had been dismissed for reasons consistent with those listed in 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g), thereby barring him from filing any new action or appeal under the PLRA unless he could make a showing of imminent danger of serious physical injury.

On appeal, the Second Circuit found that under the plain language of § 1915(g), only an action or appeal dismissed in its entirety for reasons listed in the statute can be defined as a strike. Individual claims dismissed from multiple-claim actions or appeals cannot be considered strikes. The appellate court noted that applying the statute in this fashion deterred frivolous filings while still allowing access to the courts for valid claims.

The Second Circuit found the district court had erred in applying strikes to Escalera for three prior lawsuits: Escalera v. Selsky, Escalera v. Charwand and Escalera v. N.Y.C. Hous. Dep’t. In Escalera v. Selsky, Escalera had submitted a hand-written filing that was not legible. This was a procedural error and did not qualify as a strike. Escalera v. Charwand was dismissed on summary judgment, when a magistrate stated he had considered Escalera’s claims but decided there was insufficient evidence to support them, with no finding that they were frivolous or malicious. Lastly, Escalera v. N.Y.C. Hous. Dep’t was a multiple-claim complaint where some were dismissed for failure to state a claim and others for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Since part of the multiple-claim action was dismissed over jurisdictional issues, that did not qualify as a strike.

“The PLRA was enacted to deter frivolous prisoner lawsuits and appeals – not potentially meritorious state claims filed in the wrong court by a pro se and incarcerated litigant,” the Court of Appeals wrote.

Accordingly, the Second Circuit held the district court erred in finding Escalera had five strikes; he only had two, and should be allowed to proceed with his action. The dismissal order was vacated and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Escalera v. Samaritan Village, 938 F.3d 380 (2d Cir. 2019). 

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Related legal case

Escalera v. Samaritan Village