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Fourth Circuit Says Three-Strikes Federal Prisoner’s Imminent Danger Claim Must Be Evaluated on ‘Totality of Circumstances’

by Benjamin Tschirhart

By the time he filed a pro se complaint against the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in U.S. District Court for the District of West Virginia in May 2020, prisoner Marc Pierre Hall was a “frequent litigant in the federal courts,” as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit later recalled. He had filed lawsuits in 16 federal districts. He had other appeals pending before the Court, as well as six additional federal circuits where he’d been housed by BOP.

More than three of those suits had been dismissed as meritless. So under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e, Hall was disqualified from filing any more lawsuits without paying the filing fee with one exception: Even a “three-strikes” prisoner may file in forma pauperis (IFP) if he is in “imminent danger of serious physical injury.”

Hall, a prisoner at the U.S. Penitentiary in Hazelton, claimed in his suit that he suffered a host of medical ailments that went untreated by BOP. He also argued that these same untreated conditions placed him in the sort of imminent danger that should qualify him for IFP status. The district court disagreed and dismissed his claim, with leave to re-file and pay the filing fee. Picking up counsel from attorney Blaec C. Croft of McGuireWoods LLP in Pittsburgh, Hall appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

In the Court’s opinion issued on August 12, 2022, Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory said the case required the application of PLRA at every juncture. It was not in dispute that Hall had already submitted at least three suits that were “frivolous, malicious, or failed to state a claim.” So under 28 U.S.C. 1915(g), his three strikes status was conclusive. But the Fourth Circuit had never established a legal standard for establishing “imminent danger.” So it must determine whether Hall’s claim that a possibly malignant growth on his lung was going untreated, thereby making him eligible for the imminent risk exception.

BOP responded with two arguments. First it said that Hall had not sufficiently demonstrated the existence of an imminent risk. It then added that his requested relief — IFP status — did not constitute redress for the medical dangers he claimed, thus failing to establish a “nexus” required by PLRA.

The Court agreed with one of these points but dismissed the other. It held that an unsubstantiated allegation of imminent danger is insufficient to qualify for the IFP safety valve; otherwise, courts could be inundated by meritless claims, advanced solely by unproven allegations of danger.

However, the “nexus” requirement of PLRA does not necessarily mean the requested relief must redress the alleged risk of harm. Rather, the suit must sufficiently plead a “nexus” between that risk and Defendant’s actions, and courts must consider that in light of the “totality- of-the-circumstances, past and present.”

In Hall’s case, it was possible that a malignancy existed which placed him in imminent danger, as he claimed. It was also possible he had been refused treatment by Defendants, as he claimed. If true, that would create a set of circumstances substantiating his imminent danger exception and allowing him to proceed IFP.

So the case was remanded to allow the district court to establish those facts. Meanwhile, the Court advised Defendants that if they believe Congress’ intent in passing PLRA differed from its plain language, “the proper course is to bring the issue to Congress’s attention so that it might amend the statute.” See: Hall v. United States, 44 F.4th 218 (4th Cir. 2022). 

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