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Advancing Stage of HCV Triggers Imminent Danger Exception to PLRA Three Strikes Rule

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in an unpublished decision, found that a prisoner stated a claim showing he was in imminent danger of physical harm, and that a district court erred in dismissing the prisoner’s complaint based on a Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) three strikes bar.

The Court’s March 5, 2021, opinion was issued in an appeal brought by Georgia prisoner Lester J. Smith. His pro se complaint alleged he has chronic hepatitis C (HCV) and was seeking treatment—curative medicines and not just lab work.

The district court dismissed the complaint with prejudice because has three strikes under the PLRA, which bars a prisoner from proceeding in forma pauperis in a civil action when the prisoner “has, on three or more occasions, while incarcerated or detained in any facility, brought an action or appeal in a court of the United States that was dismissed on the grounds that it is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” See: 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g). The only exception to that rule is where “the prisoner is under imminent danger of serious physical injury.”

Smith conceded he has three strikes, but he argued his complaint showed he was in “imminent danger” when it was filed. The Eleventh Circuit noted the complaint alleged he has HCV that has caused “sores throughout his body, fatigue [ ], vomit[ ]ing, pain in the liver area, jaundice of skin and eyes . . . [l]oss of appetite at times, hemorr[h]aging, [and] deterioration of other bodily organs.”

Those symptoms, the Court found, are consistent with its case law and the medical sources cited by Smith to show he has progressed to the F2 stage, or moderate fibrosis, of HCV. “Taking Smith’s allegations as true, as we must at this stage, he has alleged the imminent danger of serious physical injury of serious physical injury to trigger the exception to the three strikes rule,” the Eleventh Circuit wrote.

As such, it vacated the district court's order of dismissal. See: Smith v. Ward, 848 Fed.Appx. 853 (11th Cir. 2021).

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Related legal case

Smith v. Ward