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Eleventh Circuit Says No PLRA ‘Strike’ for Dismissal of Case Removed From State to Federal Court

by David M. Reutter

On January 25, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that a prisoner who loses a federal lawsuit does not earn a “strike” under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g) if the case was removed from state court by defendants. The reason: Because it was defendants who “brought” the action in federal court and not the prisoner, so the statute doesn’t apply. In its ruling, the Court aligned itself with similar decisions previously issued by the Third, Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits. [See: PLN, Jan. 2022, p.61.]

As amended by the 1996 passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), § 1915(g) prohibits a prisoner from claiming a poverty exemption to required filing fees after three dismissals of claims or appeals brought in a federal court while a prisoner. (An exception 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.)

Before the Court was the appeal of Hamza Maldonado and James Hill, two prisoners held at Florida’s Baker County Detention Center when they filed a pro se complaint in state court. They accused defendant jail officials of violating their federal and state constitutional rights to free exercise of their Muslim faith by preventing them from attending Jummah prayer services.

The state court granted them poverty status to proceed in forma pauperis. Defendants then removed the case to the federal court for the Middle District of Florida. There Maldonado had several other suits pending against the Baker County Sheriff’s Office, where he was transferred from federal prison in Tallahassee to await a court hearing. Prior to those, he also filed four previous federal civil rights cases. Relying on the dismissals of three of them, the district court determined Maldonado was a “three-strike” litigant not entitled to proceed in forma pauperis and dismissed his claims. It also told Hill that his claims were barred for failure to exhaust his administrative remedies, as required by PLRA itself (42 U.S.C. § 1997e). The prisoners appealed.

At the Eleventh Circuit, Plaintiffs picked up assistance of counsel from Amir H. Ali of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center in Washington, DC. Defendants began by arguing the appeal was moot since PLRA precludes damages absent physical injury and Maldonado didn’t allege any from his detention. But the Court, citing Mitchell v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 294 F.3d 1309 (11th Cir. 2002), said this was true when the prisoner’s complaint was “unrelated to prison conditions.” Also when it is “based solely on state law,” and removed to federal court by defendants “based on diversity jurisdiction.”

But while citing those limitations here, the Court also implicitly overrode them. Maldonado was in fact complaining about prison conditions. Plus he was making both state and federal claims. Moreover, Defendants had not based their removal to federal court on diversity jurisdiction. Additionally, the Court found the relevant section of PLRA applied only to compensatory damages, so Maldonado could seek punitive damages.

Turning to the merits of the case, the Court noted that Maldonado and Hill brought their action in state court, which had granted them poverty status. But they never asked the federal court to proceed in forma pauperis. The filing fees there were paid by Defendants, anyway. In addition, § 1915(g) by its plain meaning clearly “applies only to actions commenced by a prisoner in federal court,” the Court said. It “does not apply to actions, like the one here, brought by a three-strikes litigant in state court that was removed to federal court by another party.” Thus the district court’s dismissal of Maldonado’s claims was reversed and the case remanded for trial.

Next the Court examined dismissal of Hill’s claims for failure to exhaust administrative remedies and again found error in the district court’s ruling. In moving to dismiss his claims, Defendants noted his pleading — that there is no grievance remedy for him — and called it a lie. Hill responded that Defendants “misconstrued” his meaning; what he meant, and the Court agreed, was that he had exhausted the available grievance remedies without finding one that went his way. So he had satisfied the first prong of the Eleventh Circuit’s test for meeting the exhaustion requirement, as laid out in Turner v. Burnside, 541 F.3d 1077 (11th Cir. 2008).

The second prong, which requires finding facts to support or refute the pleading in the first prong, was never reached in the district court. So that claim was also remanded to develop those findings. See: Maldonado v. Baker County Sheriff’s Office, 23 F.4th 1299 (11th Cir. 2022).

The case then returned to the district court. But Hill neglected to inform the court of his current address, so his claims were dismissed for failure to prosecute on April 24, 2022. That same day, Maldonado’s request for appointed counsel was denied. But his claims are proceeding toward a trial in 2023, and PLN will report developments as they are available. See: Maldonado v. Baker County Sheriff’s Office, USDC (M.D. Fla.), Case No. 3:20-cv-00193. 

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Related legal cases

Maldonado v. Baker County Sheriff’s Office

Maldonado v. Baker County Sheriff’s Office