Thursday, May 16, 2013

Supreme Court review of Sixth Circuit ruling in indigent's civil rights case


As the National Law Journal’s Tony Mauro phrased it earlier this week, “the Supreme Court's running feud with the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals resumed Monday, May 13th., with the justices' decision to grant review in a Tennessee case involving civil rights complaints filed by prison inmates, and it's also taking the unusual step of granting that review -- filed an indigent former inmate -- without any response from the Memphis police officers he sued…"

The case, Burnside v. Walters, asks the Court whether the Sixth Circuit was correct in its ruling that federal rules of civil procedure prohibit indigent civil rights plaintiffs from amending their complaints before they are dismissed. Mauro’s article says defendant William Burnside’s lawyers assert 11 other federal circuits have ruled the other way. (Burnside's Petition for certiorari )

Burnside was arrested by Memphis police in 2008, being charged with making false 911 calls – which he denied. He was none-the-less jailed for 10 days before the charges were dropped and subsequently filed  suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, claiming the arrest violated his civil rights.

The District Court for Western Tennessee dismissed the complaint “in its entirety, pursuant to
28 U.S.C.§§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) and 1915A(b)(1), for failure to state a claim on which relief may be granted. It is therefore CERTIFIED, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(3), that any appeal in this matter by Plaintiff would not be taken in good faith and Plaintiff may not proceed on appeal in forma pauperis. Leave to proceed on appeal in forma pauperis is, therefore, DENIED. If Plaintiff files a notice of appeal, he must also pay the full $455 appellate filing fee or file a motion to proceed in forma pauperis and supporting affidavit in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit within thirty (30) days…”

The Journal’s article commented that “last term, the Supreme Court reversed all five of the Sixth Circuit’s rulings it reviewed, sometimes using sharp language to criticize the circuit's failure to abide by precedent.” Here again, “the Sixth Circuit upheld the District Court dismissal, invoking the Prison Litigation Reform Act's saying complaints that fail to state a claim in which relief may be granted ‘shall’ be dismissed. Other appeals courts have taken a more lenient approach, allowing plaintiffs to amend their complaints in such circumstances. In the 2007 Supreme Court case Jones v. Bock—also from the Sixth Circuit and cited by both sides—the justices ruled that prison complaints should not be treated differently under procedural rules in most circumstances.”

“In an effort to address the large number of prisoner complaints filed in federal court,” the Supreme Court had stated in Bock, “ Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA), 110 Stat. 1321–71, as amended, 42 U. S. C. § 1997e et seq. Among other reforms, the PLRA mandates early judicial screening of prisoner complaints and requires prisoners to exhaust prison grievance procedures before filing suit. 28 U. S. C. § 1915A; 42 U. S. C. § 1997e(a). The Sixth Circuit, along with some other lower courts, adopted several procedural rules designed to implement this exhaustion requirement and facilitate early judicial screening. These rules require a prisoner to allege and demonstrate exhaustion in his complaint, permit suit only against defendants who were identified by the prisoner in his grievance, and require courts to dismiss the entire action if the prisoner fails to satisfy the exhaustion requirement as to any single claim in his complaint. Other lower courts declined to adopt such rules. We granted certiorari to resolve the conflict and now conclude that these rules are not required by the PLRA, and that crafting and imposing them exceeds the proper limits on the judicial role.”



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