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Fourstar v. Garden City Group, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

November 28, 2017

Victor Charles Fourstar, Jr., Appellant
v.
Garden City Group, Inc., et al., Appellees

          Argued October 11, 2017

         Appeal 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.

          Victor C. Fourstar Jr., pro se, filed the brief for appellant.

          Jane 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.

          OPINION

          Kavanaugh, Circuit Judge.

         In 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.

         Under 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.

         This 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?

         The 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.

         In this 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.

         I

         On 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 ...


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