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Woodson v. McCollum

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

November 20, 2017

MARCUS D. WOODSON, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
TRACY McCOLLUM; BRUCE BORNHIEM, in their individual capacities; JOE ALLBAUGH, in his official and individual capacities; GREG WILLIAMS; BRENDA GOODSON; KERRY KENDALL; SHEILA PHILLIPS; AMBER SWIFT; SAM PRESTON; CARL BEAR; JASON BRYANT; KRISTIN TIMS; DR. TROUT; CASEY HAMILTON; HELEN BELL; MIKE ROGERS; LINDA MONK; FNU CALLINS; DENNIS HENDRIX; CHIEF TATE; SHERRY DECAMP; WARDEN DAVID PARKER; JENETTA ORR; DARREN GIPSON; LAWRENCE BELL; BRUCE KIETEL; WILLIAM WELDON; BARBIE ROUNDSVILLE, in their individual capacities, Defendants - Appellees.

         Submitted on the briefs:[*]

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma (D.C. No. 5:17-CV-00094-D)

          Amir H. Ali, Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, Washington, D.C., for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Stefanie E. Lawson, Assistant Attorney General, Oklahoma Attorney General's Office, Litigation Division, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Defendants-Appellees.

          Before HARTZ, McKAY, and MATHESON, Circuit Judges.

          HARTZ, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Marcus Woodson is a prisoner of the State of Oklahoma. He sued several prison officials in Oklahoma state court, proceeding in forma pauperis (IFP) under state law. The defendants removed the case to the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma. As required by federal statute, they paid the filing fee. See 28 U.S.C. § 1914(a) ("The parties instituting any civil action . . . whether by original process, removal or otherwise" are required to pay the filing fee. (emphasis added)). The federal court, however, determined that Woodson, who had previously abused the federal courts by filing frivolous lawsuits, was not eligible to proceed IFP and dismissed his case because he failed to pay the filing fee. Woodson appeals. Exercising jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §1291, we reverse. State-court plaintiffs whose cases are removed to federal court have no obligation to pay a filing fee; nothing in the federal IFP statute is to the contrary.

         I. The Federal IFP Statute

         Congress enacted the federal IFP statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1915, to ensure that the poor could take legal action despite their inability to pay court fees. See Coleman v. Tollefson, 135 S.Ct. 1759, 1761 (2015). The statute allows courts to "authorize the commencement . . . of any suit . . . without prepayment of fees" if a person files an affidavit stating, among other things, that he "is unable to pay such fees." § 1915(a)(1).

         But litigants who do not prepay fees have less economic incentive to refrain from filing frivolous lawsuits. See Coleman, 135 S.Ct. at 1762. "Congress came to see that prisoner suits in particular represented a disproportionate share of federal filings." Id. It therefore passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, which included several measures "designed to prevent sportive filings in federal court." Skinner v. Switzer, 562 U.S. 521, 535 (2011). One such provision is the three-strikes rule in § 1915(g), which excludes prisoners who file frequent frivolous lawsuits from the benefits of IFP status. See id.; Childs v. Miller, 713 F.3d 1262, 1265 (10th Cir. 2013). It states:

In no event shall a prisoner bring a civil action or appeal a judgment in a civil action or proceeding under this section [§ 1915] if the prisoner has, on 3 or more 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, unless the prisoner is under imminent danger of serious physical injury.

§ 1915(g). A state court is not a "court of the United States" as defined for Title 28 of the United States Code. See 28 U.S.C. § 451 ("The term 'court of the United States' includes the Supreme Court of the United States, courts of appeal, district courts constituted by chapter 5 of this title, . . . and any court created by Act of Congress the judges of which are entitled to hold office during good behavior."). The three-strikes rule does not totally bar prisoners with three strikes from filing lawsuits; it just makes them pay the filing fee as any other plaintiff. See White v. Colorado, 157 F.3d 1226, 1233 (10th Cir. 1988).

         In this case the defendants paid the federal filing fee, so Woodson did not seek to proceed IFP.[1] Nevertheless, the district court ruled that § 1915(g) required him to pay a filing fee because he has had three prior lawsuits dismissed on the grounds that they were frivolous, malicious, or failed to state a claim, and he did not qualify for the exception for prisoners who are in "imminent danger of serious physical injury." 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g).[2] It therefore dismissed his case.

         II. ...


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