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Henslee v. Keller, No. 11-6706

Decided:  June 5, 2012

Inmate Jonathan Lee Henslee appealed the district court’s dismissal of his complaint for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted and moved to proceed in forma pauperis (“IFP”).  The Fourth Circuit granted Henslee’s motion to proceed IFP, preventing the district court’s dismissal of Henslee’s complaint from counting as a third strike under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g) (2006) and “effectively insulat[ing] the dismissal from appellate review.”

This case centers on the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, which allows prisoners to qualify for IFP status to bring civil actions challenging the circumstances of their incarceration.  Under PLRA, a prisoner cannot bring an action or appeal IFP “if the prisoner has, on 3 or more prior occasions … 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 Fourth Circuit determined the issue in this case to be “whether an order dismissing a complaint as frivolous or malicious, or for failure to state a claim counts as a strike if an appeal of that order is pending or the time for filing an appeal has not expired.”  The Court found that while it has previously “addressed what constitutes a strike,” it has “not addressed under what circumstances a district court’s dismissal acts as a third strike, precluding IFP status on appeal of the underlying dismissal.”  The Court also noted that other circuits are split on this issue.

To begin its analysis, the Court first found that at least seven circuits have adopted the majority view, which holds that dismissal of a prisoner’s civil action as frivolous, malicious, or for failure to state a claim does not count as a strike for purposes of § 1905(g) until the litigant has exhausted or waived his appeals.  The Court then proceeded to a review of the plain language of the statute and found the language to be ambiguous.  Based on this interpretation, it rejected the Seventh Circuit’s holding that the statute’s language “unambiguously requires denial of IFP status for any and all actions or appeals filed after a prisoner received three dismissals.”   The Court then turned to the statute’s legislative history, prior interpretations, related statutes, and the underlying congressional purpose and public policy considerations.

Ultimately, after a thorough analysis of these sources, the Court granted Henslee’s motion to proceed IFP for the purpose of the present appeal and held that a district court’s dismissal of a complaint cannot act as a third strike, precluding a prisoner litigant from proceeding IFP on an appeal of the underlying dismissal.

Full Opinion

– Allison Hite