High Court Shuts Down Frequent-Filing Inmate

     WASHINGTON (CN) – When a prisoner with a history of filing frivolous lawsuits is appealing a third such strike, the chance of that dismissal being overturned does not offer room to file more suits, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.
     The plaintiff who brought the case at hand, Andre Lee Coleman-Bey, is incarcerated at the Baraga Correctional Facility in Michigan.
     While Coleman was appealing the dismissal of his third lawsuit as frivolous in 2010, he filed four new federal lawsuits and moved in each to proceed in forma pauperis.
     U.S. District Judge R. Allan Edgar in Marquette, Mich., rejected Coleman’s attempt to get out of paying court fees, however, finding him ineligible under the three-strikes provision of the Prison Litigation Reform Act.
     Coleman claimed that the third dismissal should not have been counted because it was still on appeal, but the 6th Circuit affirmed in 2013, leading Coleman to petition for higher review.
     After taking up the case last year, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously affirmed against Coleman on Monday.
     “Linguistically speaking, we see nothing about the phrase ‘prior occasions’ that would transform a dismissal into a dismissal-plus-appellate review,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the court. “An ‘occasion’ is ‘a particular occurrence,’ a ‘happening,’ or an ‘incident.’ And the statute provides the content of that occurrence, happening, or incident: It is an instance in which a ‘prisoner has … brought an action or appeal in a court of the United States that was dismissed on’ statutorily enumerated grounds. Under the plain language of the statute, when Coleman filed the suits at issue here, he had already experienced three such ‘prior occasions.'”
     Breyer added that there is nothing in the statute “indicating that Congress considered a trial court dismissal and an appellate court decision as if they were a single entity – or that Congress intended the former to take effect only when affirmed by the latter.”
     “We recognize that our interpretation of the statute may create a different risk: An erroneous trial court dismissal might wrongly deprive a prisoner of in forma pauperis status with respect to lawsuits filed after a dismissal but before its reversal on appeal,” Breyer wrote. “But that risk does not seem great.”
     In an amicus brief, the U.S. solicitor general told the court “that he has been able to identify only two instances in which a Court of Appeals has reversed a District Court’s issuance of a third strike,” Breyer noted.
     There is also the fact that a prisoner may be able to seek a fee waiver after a reversal allows them to refile, the court found.
     It said the statute of limitations does not pose a threat since Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) allows a prisoner “to reopen his or her interim lawsuits (reinstating the cases as of the dates originally filed) and may then seek in forma pauperis status anew.”
     The nine-page decision closes with a refusal to entertain Coleman’s hypothetical: “what if this case had involved an attempt to appeal from the trial court’s dismissal of his third complaint instead of an attempt to file several additional complaints? If the dismissal were counted as his third strike, Coleman asserts, he would lose the ability to appeal in forma pauperis from that strike itself. He believes that this result, which potentially could deprive him of appellate review, would be unfair. He further believes that it would be such a departure from the federal courts’ normal appellate practice that Congress could not possibly have intended it.”
     The lawsuit Coleman had filed pro se with Edgar alleged that six workers at the Baraga Correctional Facility had violated his rights under Section 1983.

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