A 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel on Monday unanimously upheld a district court ruling against a Department of Corrections inmate with a history of filing frivolous claims who had exhausted the third-strike rule for prisoners filing lawsuits against the state without paying an initial filing fee.
In a published opinion written by Chief Judge Jeffery Sutton, joined by Judge Richard Suhrheinrich and Judge Eugene Siler Jr., the panel ruled that the district court did not exceed its discretion nor did it err when it dismissed federal claims and declined to exercise jurisdiction regarding plaintiff’s claims in Simons v. Washington, et al.
The panel also found that the district court’s dismissal of his claims counted as third strike under the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act, which established that a prisoner accrues as strike against them if they bring forth a frivolous lawsuit. Under law, after a third frivolous claim is dismissed against an inmate known to be a serial litigant, the act prohibits said inmate from filing another lawsuit without paying the initial court fee.
At stake in the appeal, Mr. Sutton wrote, was who makes the call about a strike and when.
“Our sister circuits have reached the same bottom line, but they have sometimes traveled different paths. All agree that a district court that dismisses a prisoner’s action lacks the authority to make a strike call under the statute that binds a later court. But the Second and Third Circuits couch their holdings in constitutional, not statutory, terms,” the judge wrote. “The Second Circuit has held that district courts exceed the bounds of Article III when they describe a dismissal order as a strike, reasoning that it is only the court that entertains a fourth or later action filed by a prisoner that has the constitutional authority to make binding strike calls. The Third Circuit, too, has concluded that a court that dismisses a prisoner’s action cannot go ahead and make a binding strike call because such a call would ‘run afoul of Article III’s case or controversy requirement.'”
That said, Mr. Sutton said the 6th Circuit panel deciding Simons agreed with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the text of the act and not the U.S. Constitution resolves the matter. Further, Mr. Sutton said the panel in Simons did not read the 2nd and 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to say that a court that dismisses a prisoner’s suit cannot go ahead and make a non-binding strike call.
“Those circuits, like our court now, hold only that a dismissing court lacks the authority to issue a strike call that binds later courts,” the judge wrote. “That returns us to Simons’s case. The district court’s judgment dismissed Simons’s federal claims on the merits and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over his state law claims. Simons’s half-hearted challenges to the underlying dismissal order lack merit, are not at any rate the focus of his appeal, and do not warrant comment other than to say that the district court resolved the federal claims correctly and did not exceed its discretion in declining to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims.”
As for the district court’s opinion explaining the reasons for dismissing the claims, Mr. Sutton said that it separately labeled the dismissal as a strike in accordance with the act’s three-strikes rule.
That said, Mr. Sutton said the opinion will not prevent plaintiff from filing a free federal lawsuit in the future.
“The district court’s strike notation, as explained, does not bind later district courts. And we have no basis, as also explained, for assessing whether the district court’s non-binding strike call was right at this point,” he wrote. “Review of that decision, like the potential consideration of the district court’s recommendation by a future district court, will have to wait. Section 1915(g) leaves it to a fourth or later court to decide whether the district court’s non-binding strike call should become a binding strike.”