When indigent prisoners file multiple actions in forma pauperis, does the Prison Litigation Reform Act cap their filing fees at 20% of their preceding month’s income regardless of the number of filing fees owed, or must prisoners pay for each case for which a filing fee is owed?
The Supreme Court will decide whether section 1915(b)(2) of the Prison Litigation Reform Act requires prisoners who file multiple actions in forma pauperis to pay a monthly installment on a “per-prisoner” basis, where prisoners owe no more than 20% of their preceding month’s income regardless of the number of cases for which they owe filing fee; or on a “ per-case ” basis, where a prisoner must pay 20% of her preceding month’s income for each case for which she owes a filing fee. Federal prisoner Antoine Bruce argues that the monthly payments should be calculated on a per-prisoner basis, while Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Charles E. Samuels, Jr. argues that the payments should be calculated on a per-case basis. The parties diverge sharply in their interpretations of the text of the statute, congressional intent, the statute’s purposes, and the constitutional-avoidance canon. The Court’s ruling will resolve a circuit split between the Second, Third, and Fourth Circuits, which apply a per-prisoner cap, and the Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, and Tenth Circuits, which apply a per-case cap. Additionally, the case will impact prisoners’ access to the courts and administrative costs associated with prisoner cases.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
When a prisoner files more than one civil action or appeal in forma pauperis, does § 1915(b)(2) cap the monthly exaction for filing fees at 20% of the preceding month’s income regardless of the number of cases for which the prisoner owes filing fees, or must the prisoner pay 20% of his preceding month’s income for each case for which he owes a filing fee?
In 2009, Jeremy Pinson, a prisoner serving twenty years at the Federal Correctional Institution in Talladega, Alabama, challenged the constitutionally of his confinement conditions. Pinson brought the case in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, arguing that the Bureau of Prison’s guidelines lacked adequate safeguards because rival gang members were in the same Special Management Unit as Pinson. During his sentence, Pinson had filed over 100 actions and appeals.
In January 2010, the district court ruled that the District of Columbia was not the proper venue to hear the case and transferred it to the Northern District of Alabama. After unsuccessfully moving for reconsideration of the transfer, Pinson filed a notice of appeal contesting the transfer order with the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which treated the notice as a mandamus petition. Rather than pay the petition’s $450 docket fee, Pinson moved to proceed in forma pauperis (“IFP”) pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915 and to stay the collection of filing fees until he completed paying the filing fees he owed from previously brought cases. Thereafter, Pinson, along with other prisoners including Antoine Bruce, filed a “Motion for Joinder of Appellees and for Appointment of Counsel.” The motion claimed that the other prisoners had previously filed motions to join Pinson’s suit but the motions were improperly returned unfiled. A motions panel permitted Bruce, among others, to join Pinson’s case and ordered him to file a completed motion for leave in order to proceed IFP. Bruce also joined Pinson’s motion to stay the collection of filing fees until the payments of filing fees in previously brought cases were completed.
The D.C. Circuit denied Pinson’s IFP application because Pinson had already accumulated three strikes by previously bringing three or more actions the courts found frivolous and was thereby excluded under section 1915(b). However, the court granted Bruce’s motion to proceed IFP, because Bruce had not accumulated three strikes.
The D.C. Circuit then addressed how filing fees should be collected from Bruce and highlighted the differences between collecting installment payments under a per-prisoner and per-case approach. Under the per-prisoner approach, Bruce would satisfy his obligations in sequential order—first satisfying the obligation resulting from the earliest filed case by paying up to 20% of his monthly income each month, and then moving on to pay for the next case after satisfying the earlier obligation. Under the per-case approach, Bruce would satisfy all his obligations simultaneously so long as no individual payment exceeded 20% of his monthly income.
The D.C. Circuit ultimately decided to use the per-case approach, and Bruce was required to pay part of the filing fee associated with the mandamus petition while also continuing to pay previously incurred filing fees. Bruce subsequently petitioned to the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, which the Court granted. Respondents in this case include Charles E. Samuels, Jr., Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, among others (collectively, “Samuels”).
The Supreme Court will consider whether monthly payments for prisoners filing IFP under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b)(2) should be calculated on a per-prisoner basis or a per-case basis. Bruce asserts that the monthly payments should be calculated on a per-prisoner basis, while Samuels contends that the payments should be calculated on a per-case basis. The parties disagree over four central factors: the interpretation of the statute’s text, congressional intent, the statute’s purposes, and the constitutional-avoidance canon.
THE TEXT OF THE PLRA
Bruce argues that the text of the PLRA requires the per-prisoner approach. Bruce explains that the language of section 1915(b)(2) states that the agency with custody of the prisoner shall forward the monthly payments “to the clerk of the court each time the amount in the account exceeds $10 until the filing fees are paid.” ; Bruce maintains that Congress’ use of the singular “clerk of the court” and the plural “filing fees” means that only one clerk’s office should receive monthly payments, even when a prisoner owes multiple outstanding filing fees. Bruce claims that this reading is consistent with the per-prisoner approach. If Congress had meant for prisoners with multiple filing fees to pay these fees simultaneously, Bruce contends, it would have instructed the prisoner’s custodian to send payments to each clerk of the court, or it would have simply used the singular form for both “clerk of the court” and “filing fee.”
But Samuels argues that Congress used the singular tense throughout section 1915(b), thereby capping the amount prisoners must pay for a single proceeding. For example, Samuels explains that Congress consistently refers to “a civil action” or “an appeal.” This use of the singular is inconsistent with the per-prisoner approach, Samuels maintains, because Congress’s point of reference did not shift mid-sentence from a single proceeding to all of a prisoner’s proceedings, especially since no textual indication of such a shift was given. Samuels also contends that Congress’ use of the plural “filing fees” does not evidence an intention to refer to all of a prisoner’s cases because, he asserts, multiple fees often apply within the context of a single federal case.
Furthermore, Bruce asserts that the statutory text shows Congress’ intent to apply a per-prisoner approach. Bruce claims that Congress would have been more explicit if it were adopting a per-case approach: A per-case approach would be more effective in deterring prisoners from filing frivolous cases, but prisoners would not be deterred if the statute does not explicitly warn prisoners about the consequence of multiple filings. Moreover, Bruce reasons that Congress would have provided guidance as to what happens after the fifth filing fee, if it intended for 100% of the prisoner’s income to go towards paying fees. Bruce asserts that such a situation would be inconsistent with both the PLRA’s costs provision, and the provision that prohibits taking the 20% installment payments if the prisoner lacks $10 in her account.
But Samuels notes that section 1915, which outlines the rules and procedures for IFP cases in federal courts, is written from the perspective of a single action or appeal. Samuels asserts that this broader context reinforces Congress’ intention to apply this same perspective of a single action or appeal to the monthly-payment provision. Moreover, Samuels argues that the lack of guidance as to what happens after the fifth filing is not evidence of congressional support for the per-prisoner approach, because Congress likely did not expect many prisoners to survive the three-strikes provision. Additionally, Samuels argues, the per-case approach would not leave the prisoner with an empty bank account, because each individual fee payment must satisfy the $10 threshold.
THE PLRA’S PURPOSES
Bruce asserts that the per-prisoner approach is more compatible with the PLRA’s statutory objectives. The goal of the PLRA, Bruce explains, was to prevent prisoners from bringing frivolous cases while still ensuring that prisoners could bring meritorious claims. But Bruce argues that the per-case approach would be more likely to prevent the filing of such meritorious claims, since the per-case approach threatens to sap a larger percentage of a prisoner’s monthly income.
Samuels contends that Bruce’s approach would undermine the PLRA’s underlying purpose, because it allows a prisoner to bring as many actions or appeals as she desires, without an additional economic disincentive each month. Samuels asserts that because prisoner litigation still constitutes a disproportionate number of federal filings, the deterrent function of the per-case method is needed to effectuate the PLRA’s purposes.
Bruce contends that the canon of constitutional avoidance necessitates the per-prisoner approach. . According to this canon, Bruce maintains, the Court should avoid construing statutes in a way that raises constitutional questions. Bruce claims that the per-case approach may raise claims involving the constitutional right of access to the court, because the prospect of a prisoner losing 100% of her income each month might prevent that prisoner from filing claims.
Samuels counters that the constitutional-avoidance canon does not apply here. Samuels notes that a prisoner has no general constitutional right to a waiver of court fees, and that such a right would only apply in exceptional cases that involve fundamental rights. Moreover, Samuels argues that even if there was such a general right, the PLRA still permits a prisoner to file a lawsuit even if that prisoner has no funds available. Therefore, Samuels contends, the per-case approach does not raise any serious constitutional questions.
This case presents the Supreme Court with the opportunity to resolve a circuit split involving the interpretation of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”) regarding how monthly installment fees should be calculated for prisoners filing IFP. Bruce maintains that the correct interpretation of the PLRA utilizes the per-prisoner approach to calculate the monthly installment payments of an IFP-filing prisoner. Samuels counters that the Court should interpret the PLRA to mean that monthly installment payments should be calculated on a per-case basis. The Court’s resolution of this case will impact prisoners’ access to courts and administrative costs associated with prisoner cases.
(OVER)ACCESS TO THE COURTS
Bruce and supporting amici believe that the per-prisoner approach will facilitate greater prisoner access to courts than the per-case approach. The Southern Poverty Law Center (“SPLC”) argues that a per-prisoner approach will ensure that prisoners are not deterred from filing meritorious actions by burdensome monthly filing fees. The SPLC points out that the alternative, a per-case basis calculation, can force prisoners to pay 100% of their total monthly income, which would deter prisoners from filing meritorious and colorable claims because of the high cost. And the SPLC notes that, under either system, prisoners who file IFP will have to pay back the same amount of filing fees owed. The SPLC contends that the only difference between the two methods is the amount of time it will take to pay back the fees owed. As such, the SPLC concludes that the per-prisoner basis will not encourage prisoners to file frivolous or meritless cases, but simply encourage prisoners to file meritorious and colorable actions that they might not otherwise have filed.
Nevertheless, Samuels argues that a per-case method will better deter prisoners from bringing frivolous lawsuits and thus prevent the courts from being flooded with unnecessary actions and appeals. Samuels acknowledges that prisoners will have to pay back the costs of all their filing fees under the per-prisoner approach, but maintains the per-prisoner approach would still not deter over-filing by indigent prisoners. Samuels argues that under a per-prisoner approach, prisoners would not face additional marginal costs for additional legal activity, and thereby the deterrent effect of filing fees, because the per-prisoner approach delays payment. And Samuels asserts that prisoners may avoid having to make payments all together by being released from prison; some courts have held that IFP filers’ obligation to pay ends once they are released.
Bruce asserts that Congress likely intended the per-prisoner approach, because it is more feasible to administrate. Bruce contends that the per-case approach would require prison officials to divide prisoner fees into smaller amounts, each to be sent to several different court clerks. Additionally, Bruce claims that the per-case approach is overly complicated in situations with six or more filing fees. In these situations, Bruce posits that a per-case approach would apply for the first five filing fees, and then a sequential methodology would have to apply starting with the sixth fee.
Samuels rejects this argument, asserting that administrative convenience concerns do not support Bruce’s per-prisoner approach. Samuels notes that the process is straightforward under the PLRA as it is written; each court where a prisoner files an action or appeal requires an initial partial payment and subsequent monthly payments. Under the per-prisoner approach, however, the custodian would have to decide which court to send the payments to, and the PLRA is silent about how such decisions would be made. Samuels concludes that, rather than invite disputes over how payments should be made, the Court should adopt the more straightforward per-case approach.
In this case, the Supreme Court will decide whether 28 U.S.C. 1915(b)(2) requires prisoners who file multiple actions in forma pauperis to pay a monthly installment fee of 20% on a per-prisoner basis or a per-case basis. To resolve this issue, the Court will consider the parties’ arguments regarding the text of the statute, congressional intent, the statute’s purposes, and the constitutional-avoidance canon. This ruling will resolve a circuit split between the Second, Third, and Fourth Circuits, which apply a per-prisoner cap, and the Fifth, Seventh, Eight, and Tenth Circuits, which apply a per-case cap. The decision will also affect prisoners’ access to the courts and the administrative costs associated with prisoner cases.