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Seventh Circuit: PLRA Mandates Dismissal for Deceit on IFP Application

by David M. Reutter

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that when a prisoner deliberately misrepresents their financial status when seeking in forma pauperis (IFP)status, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) requires dismissal. In another case in the same opinion, the court held a lawsuit was improperly dismissed without allowing the prisoner plaintiff to explain discrepancies in his IFP application.

The Court’s April 29, 2021, opinion was issued in an appeal brought by Illinois prisoner Mario Reyes. He filed a civil rights complaint in September 2017 and applied to proceed IFP. In that application, Reyes wrote that he was “incarcerated, and receive[d] very minimum stipends in the form of ‘money order’ and this stipend covers the basic necessities and the cost of living for an inmate living in” an Illinois prison.

Reyes supplied an account ledger from Stateville Correctional Center that showed he had $141.34 available from January to May 2017. The district court granted the application. The defendants moved to dismiss the case in December 2018. One of the grounds for dismissal was that Reyes failed to disclose information about his income in June, July, and August of 2017. During that period, Reyes received about $1,692.10, and that he spent $785.89 at the commissary, with $564.08 spent in one day on a television, ear buds, Reebok tennis shoes, boots, and other items.

The court granted the motion to dismiss with prejudice because he was not honest with the court and had committed fraud upon it. Meanwhile, Reyes filed a second federal complaint in June 2018 for which he was granted IFP status. He started in that action, but the court found he had received $26.32 from January to May 2018. The court ordered Reyes to pay an initial partial filing fee, and when he failed to do so, his case was dismissed. Reyes appealed both orders and they were consolidated on appeal.

The Seventh Circuit pointed out that the PLRA provides that the district court “shall dismiss the case at any time if the court determines that… the allegation of poverty is untrue.” See: 28 U.S.C. Section 1915(e)(2)(A). The court found Reyes failed to demonstrate that the inaccuracies in his IFP application were unintentional. Instead, he explained his commissary expenditures as justified for living expenses.

“[W]e seriously doubt that Reyes could not live without Reebok sneakers and a television,” the court wrote. It found no error in dismissal of the 2017 case and its dismissal was affirmed.

Error, however, was found in the dismissal of the 2018 case. The Seventh Circuit said it was an error to penalize Reyes for the prison failing to transmit the initial partial filing fee. The district court also should have allowed Reyes to explain whether any errors in the 2018 IFP application were intentional. The 2018 case was remanded to allow Reyes to develop the record of whether his omissions were deliberate. See: Reyes v. Fishel, 996 F.3d 420 (7th Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal case

Reyes v. Fishel