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7th Circuit examines 3-strike rule on prisoner suits

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has followed in the footsteps of some of its sister Circuits, holding that a pro se prisoner suit should proceed because an Indiana federal judge wrongly determined the frequent suit-filing inmate had three strikes rather than two in terms of frivolous claims.

In a decision Thursday in Michael Hunter Haury v. Bruce Lemmon, et al., No. 11-2148, a three-judge panel granted pro se prisoner Michael Haury’s request to proceed in forma pauperis on appeal and reversed a decision by U.S. Judge Robert Miller in the Northern District that found the inmate had already filed too many suits considered “frivolous”

Haury filed the 42 U.S.C. §1983 suit against prison personnel and other defendants, alleging that they violated his civil rights by interfering with the delivery of his mail and failing to provide a sufficient law library in prison. Judge Miller denied Haury’s request to proceed as a pauper on the grounds that three prior suits had already been dismissed as frivolous under the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 and that prohibits him from filing any more. An exemption applies if the prisoner is in danger of serous injury, but that wasn’t the case here.

On appeal, the panel made up of Judges John Coffey, David Hamilton, and Ilana Diamond Rovner found a problem with how Judge Miller determined Haury already had three strikes under his belt and couldn’t move forward on this suit. The District judge cited a Southern District of Indiana case from the early 1990s that he described as being “frivolous for want of jurisdiction.” But the appeals judges noted that isn’t accurate since the court had dismissed part of that complaint for failing to state a claim and the rest for lack of jurisdiction. Since the court didn’t go as far as saying the claims were frivolous, that can’t be held here when applied to this instant case.

“We have never held in a published opinion that dismissal for lack of jurisdiction warrants a strike under 28 U.S. §1915(g), though we have upheld a strike in an unpublished order where a district court dismissed a frivolous lawsuit, at least where the assertion of jurisdiction was itself also frivolous,” the per curiam opinion says. “Dismissal for failure to state a claim is an enumerated ground for acquiring a strike, but the statute does not mention dismissal for lack of jurisdiction.”

Other courts – such as the 2nd, 9th, and District of Columbia Circuit courts – have held that dismissal for lack of jurisdiction doesn’t warrant imposing a strike, and the 7th Circuit panel found that reasoning persuasive.

“We agree that a dismissal for lack of jurisdiction does not warrant a strike … at least when the assertion of jurisdiction is not itself found to be frivolous,” the ruling says.

As a result, Haury has only two strikes and remains eligible for pauper status if he qualifies otherwise. Judge Miller will need to determine if a viable claim exists and if it might earn the inmate a third strike, but that remains open.
 

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