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Bruce v. Samuels, USSC No. 14-844, cert. granted 6/15/15

Question presented:

When a prisoner files more than one case or appeal in the federal courts in forma pauperis, does 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b)(2) cap the monthly exaction of filing fees at 20% of the prisoner’s monthly income regardless of the number of cases or appeals for which he owes filing fees?

Lower court decision: Pinson v. Samuels, 761 F.3d 1 (D.C. Cir. 2014)


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Under § 1915(b)(2), enacted as part of the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act, prisoners proceeding in forma pauperis must each month pay 20% of their existing income towards a federal case or appeal’s filing fee until satisfying the entire filing fee. Five circuits (including the D.C. Circuit in this case, and our own Seventh Circuit) hold that where a prisoner has more than one federal case or appeal for which a filing fee is or remains owed, § 1915(b)(2) requires the prisoner to make a separate monthly 20% installment payment for each such filing fee. Thus, 40% of the prisoner’s income would be taken in per month if the prisoner has two filing fees outstanding, 60% if he has three filing fees outstanding, and 100% if he has five filing fees outstanding. Two other circuits, in contrast, have held that § 1915 (b)(2) caps the total to be taken from a prisoner at 20% per month irrespective of how many filing fees that prisoner might still owe, with the prisoner paying off each filing fee sequentially in the order in which it was incurred. The Supreme Court will now resolve this conflict.

Wisconsin’s PLRA also has a provision for collecting fees from prisoners, § 814.29(1m)(c), but it doesn’t refer to percentages of income; rather, it provides that fees and costs can be taken from a prisoner’s account whenever the account balance exceeds $10, § 814.29(1m)(c)2. How that works when the prisoner has multiple cases pending isn’t clear from the statute or the few cases addressing the statute. Given the differences between the language in the federal and state statutes, it seems highly unlikely the decision in this case will have any bearing on state law.

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