Coleman v. Tollefson

PETITIONER: Andre Lee Coleman
RESPONDENT: Todd Tollefson, et al.
LOCATION: Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility

DOCKET NO.: 13-1333
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 575 US (2015)
GRANTED: Oct 02, 2014
ARGUED: Feb 23, 2015
DECIDED: May 18, 2015

Kannon K. Shanmugam - for the petitioner
Aaron D. Lindstrom - for the respondent
Allon Kedem - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States as amicus curiae supporting the respondent

Facts of the case

The "three strikes" provision of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) prohibits a prisoner from proceeding in forma pauperis in federal court if the prisoner has, on three or more prior occasions while incarcerated, brought an action or appeal that was dismissed on the grounds that it is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim. Andre Lee Coleman, a Michigan state prisoner, filed several claims while incarcerated. His first claim was dismissed as frivolous, and his second claim was dismissed for failure to state a claim. Coleman's third claim was also dismissed for failure to state a claim, but he appealed the judgment. Coleman's appeal of his third claim was unresolved when he subsequently filed his fourth claim and moved to proceed in forma pauperis.

The district court denied Coleman's motion and held that Coleman's three previous dismissals prevented him from proceeding in forma pauperis on his fourth claim. The court then ordered Coleman to pay the $350 filing fee. After Coleman failed to pay the fee and his fourth claim was dismissed, Coleman appealed. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed and held that the PLRA does not require that all dismissals be final to count as a "strike."


Does a district court's dismissal of a lawsuit counts as a "strike" under the PLRA while it is still pending on appeal?

Media for Coleman v. Tollefson

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 23, 2015 in Coleman v. Tollefson

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 18, 2015 in Coleman v. Tollefson

Stephen G. Breyer:

The second case is also technical, but ordinarily a federal litigant who is too poor -- it's called Coleman v. Tollefson.

Ordinarily, a federal litigant who is too poor to pay court fees can proceed in forma pauperis.

That means he doesn't have to pay all the fees, but a special statutory provision sets forth what we colloquially call the three strikes rule.

It says that a court cannot grant a federal prisoner an in forma pauperis status in a civil case where that litigant, that prisoner, “has, on three or more prior occasions, while incarcerated brought an action or appeal in a court of the United States which action or appeal was dismissed on the grounds that it is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.”

So three times that happens, and you are out.

In this case, a prisoner Andrew Lee Coleman wants to bring a federal civil case and he wants to proceed in forma pauperis even though courts have dismissed three of his earlier cases on the grounds that the statute lists.

He says, “I can bring the case nonetheless in forma pauperis, because at the time I first filed this -- call it a fourth case -- one of those earlier three dismissals was still on appeal.

For that reason, because the appeals court had not yet decided whether the district court's dismissal in the third one was correct or incorrect, that dismissal, he says, “should not count as my third strike.”

In his view, “when I brought the case, I hadn't struck out yet.”

We do not agree.

The literal language of the statute says that the courts are to account as a strike “an action or appeal that was dismissed on certain occasions, prior occasions, and each of the petitioner's three prior actions was dismissed on the grounds that the statute lists.”

The statute's language says nothing about any of these dismissals being provisional or being countable only when the litigant has no chance of securing a reversal.

Moreover, the law ordinarily treats a trial court dismissal in the way the statute's literal language suggests.

Unless a court issues a stay, a trial court's judgment, for example dismissing a case, normally takes effect whether an appeal is pending or whether it is not pending.

A trial court's dismissal's preclusive effect normally takes place immediately whether a pending appeal exist or doesn't exist, and we normally use different words to describe two different situations a trial court's action dismissing a case - that we call a dismissal - and appellate court's action in respect to that dismissal.

We normally say, the appellate court say, affirms the trial court's dismissal.

Further to refuse to count of trial court's dismissal as a strike until the conclusion of an appeal would undermine the statute's basic objective, filtering out what the prisoner's history suggests may well be meritless claims.

Appeals take time.

During that time, a litigious prisoner could file more actions, perhaps many more, while everybody is waiting for the appellate court to decide.

Indeed the petitioner here filed at least four more in forma pauperis civil cases just during the time that third strike was on appeal.

Finally, we recognize an argument the other way.

Coleman points out a danger in our interpretation.

He says, this is potentially unfair.

What's supposed to happen if my third strike was appealed and the appellate court reversed it? Then I wouldn't have had three strikes.

But we do not agree with him that this third -- this risk provides a sufficient reason for a different result.

The Solicitor General points out that instances in which an appeals court reverses a third strike dismissal like this are exceedingly rare, and in any event, he, the Solicitor General, also suggests a procedural route that involves Rule 60(b) through which were that to happen, the appeals court says, you were wrong trial court and dismissing it as frivolous, there is a route, Rule 60(b), through which a litigant in such an instance could return to court, refile his dismissed action, and recover in forma pauperis status.

That's possibly a way out.

For these reasons and for others described in our opinion, we conclude that a trial court's dismissal counts as a third strike even while the case is pending on appeal.

Thus, Coleman cannot proceed with his fourth and subsequent civil lawsuits in forma pauperis.

We affirm the similar determination of the Federal Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.