United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit
October 11, 2017
from the United States District Court for the District of
Columbia, No. 1:15-mc-00076
Jonathan D. Kossack, appointed by the court, argued the cause
as amicus curiae in support of appellant. With him on the
briefs were Anthony F. Shelley and Dawn E. Murphy-Johnson,
appointed by the court.
C. Fourstar Jr., pro se, filed the brief for appellant.
M. Lyons, Assistant U.S. Attorney, argued the cause for
federal appellees. With her on the brief was R. Craig
Lawrence, Assistant U.S. Attorney.
Before: Kavanaugh and Millett, Circuit Judges, and Williams,
Senior Circuit Judge.
Kavanaugh, Circuit Judge.
1996, Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Prison
Litigation Reform Act, known as the PLRA. The Act sought to
stem the tide of frivolous litigation filed in federal court
by some federal and state prisoners.
the Act, a dismissal of a prisoner's lawsuit for failure
to state a claim, or as frivolous or malicious, is commonly
referred to as a strike. With some limited exceptions, the
Act's basic rule is this: Three strikes and the prisoner
is out of court. Specifically, a prisoner who has previously
filed three lawsuits that were dismissed for failure to state
a claim, or as frivolous or malicious, will ordinarily not be
granted in forma pauperis status to file a new lawsuit.
case presents two questions about the operation of the PLRA.
First, suppose a prisoner brings a suit with both federal and
state claims. Suppose that the district court dismisses the
prisoner's federal claims for failure to state a claim,
or as frivolous or malicious, but declines to exercise
supplemental jurisdiction over the prisoner's state-law
claims. Does that disposition count as a strike under the
PLRA? Second, suppose that the district court when dismissing
a case contemporaneously labels the case as a strike for
purposes of the Act. When the prisoner later seeks to file a
new suit, may the later district court simply defer to the
earlier district court's labeling of the dismissal as a
strike, or must the later district court decide for itself
whether the previous dismissal counts as a strike?
text of the Act resolves those questions. First, the text
identifies the circumstances in which dismissal of a
prisoner's lawsuit counts as a strike: when the case is
dismissed for failure to state a claim, or as frivolous or
malicious. For a case to count as a strike, all of a
prisoner's claims in the case must be dismissed on one of
those enumerated grounds. A case in which a district court
declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over a
prisoner's state-law claims does not come within that
description and therefore does not count as a strike. Second,
the Act does not require or allow a later district court to
simply defer to an earlier district court's
contemporaneous statement that a dismissal counts as a
strike. The later district court must independently evaluate
whether the prior dismissals were dismissed on one of the
enumerated grounds and therefore count as strikes.
case, applying those principles, we conclude that Fourstar
has only one strike. As a result, absent any other ground on
which his in forma pauperis status may properly be denied, he
is entitled to in forma pauperis status and may maintain his
lawsuit. We therefore reverse the judgment of the District
Court denying Fourstar in forma pauperis status and
dismissing his case.
December 19, 2014, while in federal prison, Fourstar filed a
complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of
Columbia alleging constitutional violations by several U.S.
government officials. Along with his complaint, Fourstar
filed an application to proceed in forma pauperis. A party
who is unable to pay the fees and costs associated with