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SCOTUS: Federal PLRA requires fee recoupment for all pending cases, not just one at a time

Bruce v. Samuels, USSC No. 14-844, 2016 WL 112684 (January 12, 2016), affirming Pinson v. Samuels, 761 F.3d 1 (D.C. Cir. 2014); Scotusblog page (includes links to briefs and commentary)

Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b)(2) of the federal Prisoner Litigation Reform Act, a prisoner proceeding in forma pauperis must pay 20% of his or her existing income toward the filing fee of a case he or she files until the fee is paid. The federal circuit courts were split when it came to applying this requirement to prisoners who owed fees for more than one case. Some treated the 20% as a cap, so that the 20% would be taken out and applied to one case at a time till each fee was paid. Others assessed 20% per case, so that an inmate with, for example, three filing fees to pay would have 60% of his or her income taken. The Supreme Court unanimously adopts the second approach.

The Circuits following the per-case approach, we conclude, better comprehend the statute. Just as § 1915(b)(1) calls for assessment of “an initial partial filing fee” each time a prisoner“brings a civil action or files an appeal” (emphasis added), so its allied provision, § 1915(b)(2), triggered immediately after, calls for “monthly payments of 20 percent of the preceding month’s income” simultaneously for each action pursued. The other two paragraphs of § 1915(b) confirm that the subsection as a whole is written from the perspective of a single case. See § 1915(b)(3) (imposing a ceiling on fees permitted “for the commencement of civil action or an appeal” (emphasis added)); § 1915(b)(4) (protecting the right to “brin[g] civil action or appea[l] a civil or criminal judgment” (emphasis added)). There is scant indication that the statute’s perspective shifts partway through paragraph (2)…. (Slip op. at 7-8).

This decision doesn’t change Seventh Circuit practice, which had already adopted the per-case approach. Newlin v. Helman, 123 F. 3d 429, 436 (7th Cir. 1997). As noted in our post on the cert grant, Wisconsin’s version of the PLRA also has a fee recoupment provision, § 814.29(1m)(c)(intro.) and 2., but its language is quite different from the federal PLRA provision; thus, this decision appears to have no bearing on the meaning of the state provision.

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