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Seventh Circuit Holds Dismissal of Lawsuit Removed to Federal Court Cannot Count as PLRA “Strike”

On December 22, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that when a lawsuit is removed to federal court from state court and then dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, the dismissal cannot be counted as one of the three “strikes” that will then preclude a prisoner from proceeding in forma pauperis under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g). The court also held that the dismissing court may not state that its dismissal is a § 1915(g) “strike” in its judgment, though it may do so in the accompanying opinion.

Illinois prisoner Hubert D. Hill filed suit in state court seeking to compel his prison’s warden to mail two complaints, citing the U.S. Constitution’s First and Fourteenth Amendments. The defendants removed the suit to federal court. That court then noted that Hill had not alleged the prison prevented him from filing a federal suit and that court records showed the complaints had, in fact, been filed. Thus, the court held that Hill had failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted and dismissed the suit. In its judgment, the court stated that the “dismissal shall count as one of [Hill’s] allotted ‘strikes’ under the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g).”

Hill appealed the language in the judgment designating the dismissal as a “strike,” not the dismissal itself. Taking up the case then, the Seventh Circuit noted that § 1915(g) prohibits a prisoner from from claiming a poverty exemption to required fees for filing a civil action after having thrice previously brought such a claim or appeal in a court of the United States, while a prisoner, and having it dismissed as frivolous, malicious, or for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. (There is an exception that allows a prisoner to proceed in forma pauperis even after racking up three “strikes” if he or she is under imminent danger of serious physical injury.)

The appeals court agreed with Hill that § 1915 does not permit the judge who is dismissing an action to state in the judgment that it counts as a “strike.” The court may state its beliefs on the matter in the opinion accompanying the judgment, the appellate court continued, but it is up to the court reviewing the next filing to determine whether it actually counts as a strike.

The appeals court also noted that the Third, Ninth and Tenth Circuits have already held that removed suits cannot count as “strikes,” reasoning that it is because the defendants “bring” the suit into federal court, not the prisoner. Hill filed his suit in state court, not federal court. Therefore, since he didn’t “bring” the action to the federal court, it should not count as a “strike.”

The court vacated the contested language in the district court’s judgment and the equivalent statements in its opinion were disapproved. See: Hill v. Madison County, Illinois, 983 F.3d 904 (7th Cir. 2020).

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Related legal case

Hill v. Madison County, Illinois