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Eleventh Circuit Says Florida Prisoner’s Dismissed Complaint Doesn’t Count as a “Strike”

by David M. Reutter

On May 11, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that the moment a prisoner files a motion to dismiss his federal civil rights suit, a district court losses jurisdiction over it. So it therefore has no authority to find the action failed to state a claim and count the dismissal as one of three ‘strikes’ allowed prisoner litigants before they are barred from having filing fees waived to proceed in forma pauperis under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g), as amended by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e.

Florida prisoner Jason Smith filed a civil rights action against a former pastor for alleged sexual abuse more than 30 years earlier, when Smith was 11 or 12 years old. A magistrate judge reviewed the claim under the PLRA screening process and recommended dismissing it for failure to state a claim. Smith responded by filing a motion to voluntarily dismiss the case and receive a refund of his court fees under Fed.R.Civ.P. Rule 41(a), which allows a plaintiff to dismiss his own action any time “before the opposing party serves either an answer or a motion for summary judgment.” The prisoner explained he was unaware he could not sue a private party under 42 U.S.C. §1983 and would not have wasted the court’s time had he known.

The district court again referred the case to the magistrate, who reasoned that Rule 41(a) is expressly “[s]ubject to … any applicable federal statute”—so prisoners cannot exercise their right to voluntary dismissal after an adverse recommendation under the PLRA screening process; otherwise, they could avoid receiving one of the three “strikes” the law allows and thereby frustrate Congress’ intent in adopting it. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida agreed, dismissing the case and imposing a “strike.”

Represented by Washington, D.C. attorneys Benjamin Gunning and Devi M. Rao of the Roderick & Solange ­MacArthur Justice Center, along with Hannah Nguyen of King & Spalding, LLP, Smith appealed. He argued that the district court erred by invoking the PLRA to trump his clear right to voluntarily dismiss the action under Rule 41. The Court agreed, finding “no language in the PLRA purporting to limit or condition a plaintiff’s right to voluntarily dismiss an action ‘without a court order’ under Rule 41(a) in the prisoner litigation context.”

 “Although this interpretation may permit a prisoner to evade a strike by voluntarily dismissing a case after a magistrate judge’s adverse screening recommendation,” the Court said it could not “rewrite the text to match our intuitions about unstated congressional purposes,” quoting Daker v. Comm’r, Ga. Dep’t of Corr., 820 F.3d 1278 (11th Cir. 2016). The district court’s order was thus vacated with instructions to substitute a voluntary dismissal pursuant to Rule 41(a). See: Smith v. Williams, 67 F.4th 1139 (11th Cir. 2023).  

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Related legal case

Smith v. Williams