Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Taylor v. Grubbs

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

July 18, 2019

THERL TAYLOR, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
VIRGINIA GRUBBS; PAMALA SMITH; ANN HALLMAN; SHERMAN ANDERSON, Present Chief; VALERIE JONES; SUPERVISOR RANDALL WILLIAMS; JOHN PATE; ALLENDALE FAIRFAX COUNTY-CITY, Defendants - Appellees. THERL TAYLOR, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
JOHN PATE; RANDALL WILLIAMS; TERESA RAMSEY; CONNIE BUEHNER; LT. CARTER, SCDC; SCDC; JANE DOE, Employees; JOHN DOE, Employees; PAMELA SMITH, AI Grievance Coordinator, Defendants - Appellees. THERL TAYLOR, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
WALTER WORRICK; VIRGINIA GRUBBS; PAMELA SMITH; SCDC LT MR C HARTLEY; JOHN PATE; BRYAN STIRLING; JANE DOES; JOHN DOES, Defendants - Appellees.

          Argued: May 8, 2019

          Appeals from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, at Charleston. Richard Mark Gergel, District Judge. (2:15-cv-04958-RMG; 2:16-cv-02115-RMG; 2:16-cv-03084-RMG)

         ARGUED:

          Adam B. McCoy, WAKE FOREST UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF LAW, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for Appellant.

          Claude Eugene Hardin, Jr., THE MCKAY FIRM, PA, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellees.

         ON BRIEF:

          John J. Korzen, Director, Hanna E. Monson, Third-Year Law Student, Appellate Advocacy Clinic, WAKE FOREST UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF LAW, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for Appellant.

          Daniel R. Settana, Jr., THE MCKAY FIRM, PA, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellees.

          Before MOTZ, WYNN, and RICHARDSON, Circuit Judges.

          DIANA GRIBBON MOTZ, CIRCUIT JUDGE

         Ordinarily, a federal plaintiff lacking sufficient funds may proceed in forma pauperis, that is, without prepaying the filing fees, when filing a complaint or an appeal in federal court. But under the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), a court may not grant in forma pauperis status to a prisoner if he "has, on 3 or more prior occasions, while incarcerated or detained in any facility, 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." 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g) (the "three-strikes rule"). This case requires us to decide whether an indigent prisoner may proceed in forma pauperis on appeal from the order assigning his third strike. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that he can and so grant his motions to do so.

         I.

         A.

         Recognizing the importance of providing equal access to federal courts, Congress has provided that indigent prisoners may, before a court rules on the merits of a case, seek to proceed "without prepayment of fees or security therefor." 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(1). Prisoners who do so do not avoid paying the filing fees entirely. Rather, the statute "requires that a prisoner (1) pay an initial partial filing fee based on the funds available in the prisoner's account; and (2) make monthly payments of '20 percent of the preceding month's income credited to the prisoner's account.'" Tolbert v. Stevenson, 635 F.3d 646, 648 n.1 (4th Cir. 2011) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b)(1)-(2)).

         Even so, Congress has long recognized the potential for abuse in this system, which reduces the immediate "economic incentive to refrain from filing frivolous, malicious, or repetitive lawsuits." Coleman v. Tollefson, 135 S.Ct. 1759, 1762 (2015) (internal quotation marks omitted). Concluding this was especially true for prisoner suits, Congress "enacted a variety of reforms designed to filter out the bad claims and facilitate consideration of the good" through the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 ("PLRA"). Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 204 (2007); see also Coleman, 135 S.Ct. at 1762.

         The "three-strikes rule" is one such reform. It provides that a prisoner may not bring a civil action or an appeal in forma pauperis if he has had three prior actions or appeals dismissed as frivolous, as malicious, or for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g). In this case, we must decide whether an indigent prisoner may proceed in forma pauperis on appeal from the very order assigning his third strike.

         B.

         Therl Taylor, an indigent state prisoner, filed three pro se civil rights actions in the District of South Carolina against various employees of the South Carolina Department of Corrections and the City of Allendale (collectively, "Appellees").

         In the first action, filed on December 14, 2015, Taylor alleged that seven employees of the South Carolina Department of Corrections and the City of Allendale had denied him access to the prison's mailroom services, interfering with his ability to petition the courts. In the second action, filed against a similar group of corrections officials on June 20, 2016, Taylor alleged that the officials violated his rights by transferring him to a new unit. He also made general allegations of "corruption, drug smuggling, [and] high rates of violence." Taylor filed a third action on September 8, 2016, again alleging that corrections officials had improperly transferred him to another unit and confiscated his personal belongings. In a set of three orders issued on the same day, the district court dismissed each complaint for failure to state a claim and so assigned Taylor three "strikes" under § 1915(g).

         Taylor timely filed a pro se notice of appeal in each case, again on the same day, and moved in each to proceed in forma pauperis, which Appellees opposed. We consolidated the three cases, provisionally granted Taylor in forma pauperis status, and appointed counsel for him to address the following issue: "Whether trial court dismissal only qualifies as a strike for PLRA purposes if it occurred in a different lawsuit."

         II.

         We considered the exact issue presented here in Henslee v. Keller, 681 F.3d 538 (4th Cir. 2012). There, as here, a state prisoner appealed the district court's dismissal of his third qualifying complaint for failure to state a claim and moved to proceed in forma pauperis on appeal. Id. at 539. Adopting the view then widely held by other circuits, we concluded that the prisoner could so proceed because "counting the district court's dismissal as the third strike under [§ 1915(g)] would effectively insulate the dismissal from appellate review." Id. at 539, 541-42.[1]

         To reach this conclusion, we first found the term "occasion" in § 1915(g) to be ambiguous. Id. at 542. We then turned to the statute's history and purpose, which "indicate[d] that Congress's intention was to limit frivolous prisoner litigation without preventing meritorious claims from being heard." Id. at 543. Against this backdrop, we observed that denying in forma pauperis status in these circumstances would "freeze out meritorious claims or ossify district court errors by effectively preventing the appellate courts from performing their function." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). Because the statute's history and purpose evidenced no intent to do so, we held that "the dismissal of the underlying claim" did not "act as a strike to preclude [in forma pauperis] status on its own appeal." Id.

         Three years after we decided Henslee, the Supreme Court considered a related but factually distinct issue: whether a prisoner whose third strike was pending on appeal could file "several additional actions" in forma pauperis. Coleman, 135 S.Ct. at 1761 (emphasis added). In holding that a prisoner could not do so, the Court focused on when a dismissal becomes final under § 1915(g). Id. at 1763-64. The Coleman Court reasoned that because the term "dismiss . . . does not normally include subsequent appellate activity," a district court's dismissal of an action immediately counts as a strike under § 1915(g) as to all later-filed additional actions. Id. at 1763.

         Resisting this result, the prisoner in Coleman had argued, based in part on a portion of our rationale in Henslee, that the phrase "prior occasions" created ambiguity as to the meaning of when an action or appeal "was dismissed." Id. The Supreme Court rejected this argument - and thus some of our reasoning in Henslee - and held that nothing in the phrase "'prior occasions' . . . transform[s] a dismissal into a dismissal-plus-appellate-review." Id. (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g)).

         Notwithstanding its rejection of the prisoner's claim in Coleman, the Supreme Court found it unnecessary to decide the question we faced in Henslee and we face again today: that is, may a prisoner proceed in forma pauperis on "appeal from the trial court's dismissal of his third complaint"? Id. at 1765. The United States, appearing as amicus curiae for the prison officials, offered an answer of its own: it argued that § 1915(g) was best read to afford a prisoner in forma pauperis status on appeal from the third qualifying dismissal. See Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae Supporting Respondents at 25-27, Coleman, 135 S.Ct. 1759 (No. 13-1333), 2015 WL 272362 [hereinafter "Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae"]. After explaining the Solicitor General's position, the Supreme Court expressly left for another day resolution of whether that position was correct. Coleman, 135 S.Ct. at 1765.

         We now consider again the issue resolved in Henslee but left open by the Court in Coleman.[2] Taylor maintains that we should reach the same conclusion here. While conceding that the Coleman Court left this question "unresolved," Appellees nonetheless maintain that the Coleman Court's rationale "supports" a different result.

         III.

         We review de novo questions of statutory interpretation, including application of the three-strikes ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.