Illinois Court to Clarify Frivolous Inmate Filings

     CHICAGO (CN) – Illinois punishes inmates who file frivolous court motions by revoking their good-conduct credits, but the 7th Circuit says the law is unclear.
     In a 47-page opinion last week, the circuit asked the Illinois Supreme Court to weigh in so that it can sort out the pro se civil rights complaint of Paul Eichwedel.
     The Dixon Correctional Center inmate brought a number of claims against prison officials in 2001, and then sought sanctions when Illinois moved to dismiss.
     Eichwedel said he thought sanctions were warranted since his complaint already survived screening. His legal conclusion apparently stemmed from a mistaken reading of a notice he read in the prison library on the Prison Litigation Reform Act.
     In a second motion for sanctions, Eichwedel claimed that the state had mischaracterized the facts and the law in response to his first motion.
     U.S. District Judge Harold Baker rejected both motions as frivolous.
     In refusing to the ruling later, Baker wrote: “The court does not doubt that the plaintiff believed he had grounds for his motion, but his subjective beliefs do not determine whether his motion was legally frivolous. A filing is legally frivolous if it ‘lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact.'”
     The Prisoner Review Board ultimately revoked six months of good-conduct credits that Eichwedel had stored. Section 5/3-6-3(d) of the Illinois Compiled Statute 730 allows the Illinois Department of Corrections to take away up to 180 days of good-conduct credits if “the court makes a specific finding that a pleading, motion, or other paper filed by the prisoner is frivolous.”
     Eichwedel filed another lawsuit, this time challenging 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d) as an unconstitutional chill on inmate speech. He also alleged procedural flaws in his credit revocation.
     U.S. District Judge Philip Reinhard dismissed the challenge, but the 7th Circuit breathed some life back into the claims with its finding that an important legal aspect of the case needs resolution.
     To determine whether the credit-revocation decision met the “some evidence” standard, the court must determine what evidence is statutorily required to support a frivolous determination.
     But the plain language of the statute suggests that a judge must contemplate revoking good-conduct credits in the frivolous finding decision, the court observed.
     “The statute defines frivolous to mean five particular things and explicitly provides that a court must make a specific finding that one of those definitions has been satisfied before IDOC may seek to revoke good-conduct credit under 730 ILCS 5/3-6- 3(d),” Judge Kenneth Ripple wrote for a three-member panel.
     Unclear about the requirement, the 7th Circuit certified one question to the Illinois Supreme Court:
     “As of the date Mr. Eichwedel’s state court challenge to the revocation of his good-conduct credits became final, was the state required to establish, in order to revoke a prisoner’s good-conduct credit, either that the court making the finding of frivolousness had determined specifically that the filing satisfied one of the definitions of frivolousness in 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d) or that the court had otherwise made its intent to invoke 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d) known?”
     The decision also affirms dismissal of Eichwedel’s “chilling effect” claims since the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution does not protect frivolous litigation.
     The 7th Circuit has adopted the opinions of state supreme courts for the last two cases in which it certified questions.
     In American Federation of Teachers v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, the Illinois Supreme Court explained the rehiring rights of tenured teachers who were laid off for economic reasons.
     In George v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, the Indiana Supreme Court found that the ticket-distribution plan for the Men’s Final Four did not constitute a “lottery” under state law.
     At the moment, the Kansas Supreme Court is mulling a question in Craig v. Fedex Ground Packaging System, which asks whether delivery drivers are employees or independent contractors under the state’s Wage Payment Act.

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