Leave to Amend Doesn’t Bear on Inmate Fee Waivers, High Court Rules

The U.S. Supreme Court. (Courthouse News photo/Jack Rodgers)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Federal prisoners can have only so many fee waivers to file lawsuits, and the Supreme Court ruled Monday that lawsuits dismissed with the ability to refile count against that limit.

The ruling stems from a 2018 suit filed by Arthur Lomax, who is incarcerated at the Limon Correctional Facility in Colorado, over his dismissal from a sex-offender treatment program.

After identifying three earlier challenges Lomax filed that were dismissed, a federal judge denied Lomax’s request to have his fees waived.

Federal law prevents prisoners from having their fees waived on lawsuits they file if they have filed three earlier lawsuits that were dismissed for being “frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” 

But Lomax argued on appeal that that those earlier cases should not count because two of his previoussuits were dismissed without prejudice for failure to state a claim.

The Supreme Court was unanimous Monday in ruling otherwise, saying the text of the Prison Litigation Reform Act makes clear the three-strike system applies to any case dismissed for failure to state a claim.

“The text of the PLRA’s three-strikes provision makes this case an easy call,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court. “A dismissal of a suit for failure to state a claim counts as a strike, whether or not with prejudice.” 

Represented by attorneys at Goodwin Proctor, Lomax argued he should not be locked out of receiving a fee waiver because lawmakers who pushed PLRA to become law were clear that they did not mean to clamp down on all lawsuits from prisoners, just ones filed without merit. 

“The PLRA’s sponsors emphasized that the act targets only truly meritless and frivolous prisoner claims, and they insisted that the law would not inhibit prisoners from pursuing legitimate grievances,” his December brief to the high court states. “But imposing strikes for temporary and curable procedural errors would do precisely that.” 

But Kagan explained Congress meant to limit the number of lawsuits of all kinds coming out of prisons with the PLRA, expanding on an earlier statute that only covered frivolous and malicious suits. To accept Lomax’s argument would effectively undermine the purpose of expanding the limitation, she wrote. 

Though her colleagues otherwise joined the ruling in full, Justice Clarence Thomas took exception to a footnote that parses the language of the three-strikes provision. 

Lomax’s attorney, Brian Burgess with Goodwin Proctor in Washington, said they are disappointed in the decision, but noted that courts are free to let indigent prisoners amend their complaints to correct flaws that would run them into the three-strike provision. 

The Colorado Attorney General’s Office did not return a request for comment.

The ruling was the sole opinion from the court on Monday, as the justices left undecided high-profile disputes over employment protections for gay and transgender people, the Trump administration’s wind-down of the DACA program and subpoenas seeking President Donald Trump’s tax returns. 

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