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Ninth Circuit Refunds Filing Fee to “Struck-Out” California Prisoner Denied Indigent Status Under PLRA

by Matt Clarke

On October 11, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit determined it was illegal to collect court filing fees from a prisoner denied indigent status to proceed in forma pauperis (IFP) unless he decides to go forward and pay them on his own. Once found to have three or more suits previously dismissed as frivolous or for failure to state a claim—known as “strikes”—a prisoner is barred from proceeding IFP absent a showing of “imminent danger” by 28 U.S.C. § 1915, as amended by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. But that statute, the Court said, “neither permits nor requires the collection of filing fees from a struck-out prisoner.”

After contracting shingles from a cellmate at California’s Salinas Valley State Prison, Leon Meyers filed suit pro se in 2015, accusing state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officials of deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. The federal court for the Northern District of California granted him IFP, but revoked it on a motion from Defendants, agreeing that Meyers had more than three “strikes”—previous federal actions or appeals that had been dismissed. The Ninth Circuit affirmed that decision.

Meanwhile, though, the filing fee was being deducted in increments from his prison trust fund account, pursuant to the original order granting IFP status. By November 2020, it had been paid in full. So Meyers filed a pro se motion in the Ninth Circuit to reinstate his appeal to the district court’s original dismissal of his claims. The Court appointed attorney Sheridan Caldwell of San Francisco’s Latham and Watkins LLP to represent Meyers. It then directed the parties to brief “what effect” revocation of IFP status had on collection of fees.

After that, the Court issued its ruling, allowing that it had authority to reinstate an appeal “in exceptional circumstances” and “for good cause to prevent injustice,” but finding no such circumstance or cause in this case. Further, the motion to reinstate was untimely coming 661 days after the mandate became effective.

In his motion, Meyers also asked for a refund of his filing fees if the appeal weren’t reinstated, arguing that § 1915 does not authorize or require collection from a prisoner who is denied IFP status. Defendant CDCR officials argued against that, noting Congress’ intent in passing PLRA to dissuade prisoners from frivolous filings.

Examining the “plain meaning” of the statute, the Court agreed with Meyers. A prisoner denied IFP status whose appeal is never considered has not filed an appeal at all, the Court declared, pointing to Smith v. District of Columbia, 182 F.3d 25 (D.C. Cir. 1999). That also satisfied any punishment for frivolous filings that Congress intended in passing PLRA. Thus Defendants’ motion was denied and the district court directed to refund Meyers’ filing fee. See: Meyers v. Birdsong, 83 F.4th 1157 (9th Cir. 2023).  

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Related legal case

Meyers v. Birdsong