Choosing form over substance, the Seventh Circuit ruled earlier this week that dismissals of a prison inmate’s repeated “unintelligible” complaints do not count as strikes under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, even though the cases should have been dismissed with prejudice for failure to state a claim. Paul v. Marberry (No. 10-3670). The PLRA requires prepayment of all filing and docket fees by inmate-plaintiffs who have three strikes — a requirement that may effectively doom lawsuits by indigent inmates. The PLRA specifies that a strike should be assigned for each action brought by an inmate that was dismissed for failure to state a claim.
Paul filed a series of complaints, each of which was initially dismissed without prejudice under FRCP 8(a)(2) for failure to provide a “short plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” In none of the cases did Paul take advantage of the opportunity to file a new complaint in compliance with the rule. The district court then dimissed each case for failure to prosecute. Paul finally obtained the assistance of a fellow inmate who had better drafting skills and managed to file a complaint that did state a claim. However, the district court dismissed the new complaint based on the PLRA three-strikes rule and Paul’s failure to prepay his fees.
On appeal, the Seventh Circuit indicated that the earlier cases should have been dismissed for failure to state a claim instead failure to prosecute (5). But, given that the dismissal orders nowhere used strike-triggering language, the court held that they should not be counted against Paul:
[W]e think the plaintiff was entitled to take the previous dismissals at face value, and since none of them was based on any of the grounds specified in section 1915(g), to infer that he was not incurring strikes by the repeated dismissals. The statute is explicit, and the case law confirms, . . . that classifying a dismissal as a strike depends on the grounds given for it; since most prisoners litigate their civil claims pro se, they should not be required to speculate on the grounds the judge could or even should have based the dismissal on. (7-8)
Cross posted at Life Sentences Blog.
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