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Indigent Inmates Must Pay Every Time They Sue

WASHINGTON (CN) - Indigent inmates fighting numerous lawsuits must pay filing fees simultaneously, as well, not sequentially, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, resolving a circuit split.

Antoine Bruce had hoped for a different outcome while faced with an obligation to pay partial filing fees while proceeding in forma pauperis.

Prior to the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, indigent prisoners could file civil actions without paying any filing fee.

Under the replacement scheme, prisoners qualified to proceed in forma pauperis must pay either 20 percent of their average monthly account deposits, or 20 percent of their average monthly account balances over the preceding six months. Monthly installments are due thereafter.

There are exceptions, such as if the inmate has no means to pay the initial partial filing fee, or has less than $10 in his account for the monthly installments.

Though partial filing fees are assessed on a per-case basis, Bruce balked at orders to pay 20 percent of his monthly income for each case he files.

Serving a 15-year sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Talladega, Ala., Bruce wanted to avoid paying monthly filing-fee payments until after he satisfied prior obligations in other cases.

With federal courts of appeals divided on the matter, the D.C. Circuit rejected Bruce's argument. The Supreme Court took up the case in June and affirmed unanimously Tuesday.

"The per-case approach more vigorously serves the statutory objective of containing prisoner litigation, while the safety-valve provision, ensures against denial of access to federal courts," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court. "Bruce's administrability concerns carry little weight given reports from several states that the per-case approach is unproblematic."

In the case at hand whose fees Bruce hoped to delay paying, the inmate is fighting

his placement in Talladega's special management unit for disruptive or gang-affiliated inmates.

Though fellow inmate Jeremy Pinson brought the challenge initially, the D.C. Circuit refused to let Pinson proceed in forma pauperis because he had run afoul of the Prison Litigation Reform Act's three-strikes provision.

The federal judge assigned to the case in D.C. transferred the matter to Alabama.

Bruce and other fellow SMU inmates brought a joinder motion after the D.C. Circuit construed Pinson's notice of appeal as a petition for a writ of mandamus.

The court eventually allowed only Bruce and three other prisoners behind the joinder effort to proceed in forma pauperis under Section 1915 of Title 28.

In 2014, the D.C. Circuit found that none of this quartet had standing to challenge the transfer of the case to Alabama, or the supposed refusal of the lower court to docket their motion for joinder.

A separate section of that decision applied only to the collection of Bruce's fees.

Unlike the D.C. Circuit and four other courts, the Second and Fourth Circuits found that inmates could satisfy their obligations sequentially.

Bruce was represented by Anthony Shelley with Miller & Chevalier.

Pinson, the inmate who brought the underlying action but was denied IFP status, filed more than 100 civil actions and appeals across the nation, the D.C. Circuit noted.

Pinson is serving 20 years for threatening the president of the United States, among other things, and was later relocated to an administrative maximum facility in Florence, Colo.

The Eighth Circuit revived deliberate-indifference claims in 2014 by a man whose cellmate at Talladega stabbed him in 2009. That cellmate was also named Jeremy Pinson.

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