Monday, February 9, 2009

Inmate cannot satisfy PLRA's "imminent danger" exception

Inmate litigation is not what it used to be, not since Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act in 1995, intending to scale back frivolous inmate litigation. The irony is that, with all new legislation, it takes many court decisions (and therefore more litigation) to fully interpret the law.

The case is Pettus v. Morganthau, decided on January 28. One of the provisions of the PLRA is that three prior frivolous lawsuits means that the inmate cannot file another case in forma pauperis, a latin phrase that refers to someone who is without funds to pursue the normal costs of a lawsuit. An inmate who is granted IFP status can proceed without paying the filing fee. Since most inmates cannot afford the $350.00 filing fee in Federal court, IFP status can make or break the case.

The PLRA has an escape hatch for inmates who have filed three frivolous suits in the past but who need to file another IFP case now. The inmate has to show that he is in "imminent danger of serious physical injury" under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g). This exception seems simple enough. It isn't.

In Pettus, the inmate alleged that "various New York State Department of Correctional Services employees who were involved with adjudicating alleged disciplinary infractions lodged against him at the Elmira Correctional Facility or who transferred him from Elmira to the Southport Correctional Facility, a so-called supermax facility for especially violent offenders, were biased and incorrectly classified him. Pettus’s complaint also alleges that at Southport he has been surrounded by hostile, aggressive, violent inmates who beat, rob, assault, extort, and sexually abuse him, and that he has been denied access to needed medication."

This sounds like Pettus satisfies the imminent danger exception, since he is at a prison where other hostile inmates are threatening him. But careful reading of his complaint makes it clear that he is not suing anyone at his current prison, Southport. He is only suing the officials who placed him in harm's way at Southport. As the Second Circuit sees it, Pettus might be in imminent danger, but the legal standard set forth in this case requires that the complaint be dismissed.

The Circuit borrows from standing jurisprudence in holding that "there must be a nexus between the imminent danger a three-strikes prisoner alleges to obtain IFP status and the legal claims asserted in his complaint." In the standing cases, a person cannot bring a lawsuit unless there is a connection between his claims and the relief sought. It's not enough to have a claim; the lawsuit must be reasonably calculated to redressing the harm alleged in the complaint. As the Court of Appeals frames the analysis, "In deciding whether such a nexus exists, we will consider (1) whether the imminent danger of serious physical injury that a three-strikes litigant alleges is fairly traceable to unlawful conduct asserted in the complaint and (2) whether a favorable judicial outcome would redress that injury."

Since Pettus is not suing anyone at Southport, and it was the people in the criminal justice system who placed him there, his complaint lacks any nexus between the harms at Southport and his claims for relief. The Court holds, "Even if Pettus were entirely successful in pursuing these claims, moreover, the possibility that the judicial relief he would receive would redress the imminent danger he asserts is entirely speculative." Moreover, "The bulk of Pettus’s claims for relief are directed at asserted wrongs — such as his allegedly improper prosecution and inmate classification — that are much too attenuated from the imminent danger of serious physical injury he alleges to conclude that this danger may fairly be traced back to the asserted wrongs."

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