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Coleman v. Tollefson

United States Supreme Court

May 18, 2015

ANDRE LEE COLEMAN, AKA ANDRE LEE COLEMAN-BEY, PETITIONER
v.
TODD TOLLEFSON, ET AL

Argued February 23, 2015,[*]

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT

SYLLABUS

[191 L.Ed.2d 806] Ordinarily, a federal litigant who is too poor to pay court fees may proceed in forma pauperis. This means that the litigant may commence a civil action without prepaying fees or paying certain expenses. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a). But a special " three strikes" provision prevents a court from affording in forma pauperis status to a prisoner who " has, on 3 or more prior occasions, while incarcerated . .., brought an action or appeal in a court of the United States that was dismissed on the grounds that it is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted." § 1915(g).

Petitioner Coleman, a state prisoner, filed three federal lawsuits that were dismissed on grounds enumerated in § 1915(g). While the third dismissal was pending on appeal, he filed four additional federal lawsuits, moving to proceed in forma pauperis in each. The District Court refused to permit him to proceed in forma pauperis in any of those lawsuits, holding that a prior dismissal is a strike under § 1915(g) even if it is pending on appeal. The Sixth Circuit agreed with the District Court.

Held : A prior dismissal on one of § 1915(g)'s statutorily enumerated grounds counts as a strike, even if the dismissal is the subject of an ongoing appeal. Pp. 4-9.

(a) Coleman suggests that that a dismissal should count as a strike only once appellate review is complete. But the word " dismissed" does not normally include subsequent appellate activity. See, e.g., Heintz v. Jenkins, 514 U.S. 291, 294, 115 S.Ct. 1489, 131 L.Ed.2d 395. And § 1915 itself describes dismissal as an action taken by a single court, not as a sequence of events involving multiple courts. See § 1915(e). Coleman further contends that the phrase " prior occasions" creates ambiguity. But nothing about that phrase transforms a dismissal into a dismissal-plus-appellate-review. In the context of § 1915(g), a " prior occasion" merely means a previous instance in which a " prisoner has . . . brought an action or appeal . . . that was dismissed on" statutorily enumerated grounds.

A literal reading of the " three strikes" provision is consistent with the statute's treatment of the trial and appellate states of litigation as distinct. See § § 1915(a)(2), (a)(3), (b)(1), (e)(2), (g). It is also supported by the way in which the law ordinarily treats trial court judgments, i.e., a judgment normally takes effect despite [191 L.Ed.2d 807] a pending appeal, see Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 62; Fed. Rule App. Proc. 8(a), and its preclusive effect is generally immediate, notwithstanding any appeal, see Clay v. United States, 537 U.S. 522, 527, 123 S.Ct. 1072, 155 L.Ed.2d 88.

Finally, the statute's purpose favors this Court's interpretation. The " three strikes" provision was " designed to filter out the bad claims and facilitate consideration of the good," Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 204, 127 S.Ct. 910, 166 L.Ed.2d 798. To refuse to count a prior dismissal because of a pending appeal would produce a leaky filter, because a prisoner could file many new lawsuits before reaching the end of the often lengthy appellate process. By contrast, the Court perceives no great risk that an erroneous trial court dismissal might wrongly deprive a prisoner of in forma pauperis status in a subsequent lawsuit. Pp. 4-8.

(b) Coleman also argues that if the dismissal of a third complaint counts as a third strike, a litigant will lose the ability to appeal in forma pauperis from that strike itself. He believes this is a result that Congress could not possibly have intended. Because Coleman is not appealing from a third-strike trial-court dismissal here, the Court declines to address that question. Pp. 8-9.

733 F.3d 175, affirmed.

Kannon K. Shanmugan argued the cause for petitioner.

Aaron D. Lindstrom argued the cause for respondents.

Allon Kedem argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave ...


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