It’s a fact of life: fees are everywhere. And for prisoners, one of those costs is the cost of lawsuits, thanks to the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The law was passed in order to prevent prisoners from filing hundreds of frivolous lawsuits at no cost.
There is a specific filing fee waiver process. This is called in forma pauperis, or IFP. The phrase translates literally to “in the form of a pauper” and refers to an individual who does not have the funds to acquire a proper legal defense or file a lawsuit. In the PLRA, the term “waiver” isn’t entirely accurate – rather than paying the fee in its entirety up front, since prisoners make wages of around $1/hr for labor in prison and thus can’t afford the fee of hundreds of dollars, a prisoner can pay 20% of his/her paycheck each month toward the fee until it is paid off.
But the statute isn’t entirely clear – or at least thorough. Antoine Bruce, a federal prisoner, has filed multiple lawsuits, but when the fees were collected on top of each other (e.g. in a per case manner), they stacked up after 5 suits to equal 100% of his paycheck the month before. Bruce, in suing the Federal Bureau of Prisons (Director: Charles E. Samuels Jr., hence Bruce v. Samuels), argues that the fee should be issued per prisoner, meaning he would pay 20% of his check each month regardless of how many suits he files, tacking on the charges after each prior case has been fully paid off. It’s helpful to think of it as a system of vertical fees (stacking fees on top of each other, as long as each individual charge is less than 20% of his income) or horizontal fees (putting fees on at the end of prior fees). And more generally, at stake here is the accessibility of the courts to prisoners.
In his case at the D.C. Court of Appeals, Bruce was required to follow the per-case approach, meaning all the different fees he accumulated would have to be paid at once. Bruce appealed the decision, and the Supreme Court granted cert. There was also a circuit split, meaning different Circuit Courts across the country had decided the issue in different ways.
The debate in the case can be seen as one of cynicism vs. optimism. If prisoners are granted easier access to courts, which both sides agree would happen as a result of per-prisoner fee scheme, would the prisoners file meritorious or frivolous suits? It is a question that is perhaps unknowable until all is said and done, but that is not an excuse for the justices. Bruce’s lawyers, of course, hoped to convince the Justices that prisoners will act in good faith and only file cases with real merit, while the Federal Bureau of Prisons believes such a decision would open the floodgates to a bevy of frivolity in the courtroom.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons makes one further argument: since prisoners no longer have to pay the IFP payments after they are released, delaying the payments could let the prisoners off the hook for the payments they may owe for other, potentially frivolous cases.
Bruce also argues that he sides with congressional intent because his interpretation is far more feasible for prison administrators who, in a per-case scheme, would have to divide fees into smaller amounts, all of which would have to be sent to different clerks. Plus, after the fifth suit, the fees would have to become sequential anyway. Samuels argues, however, that there is no administrative difficulty in the per-case system. In fact, it is the per-prisoner scheme that would present problems, as the statute is silent about the specifics of how aspects of that system would work.
There are four main arguments in the briefs. First, the text of the PLRA. Bruce argues that, in one specific sentence, there is a singular/plural distinction between fees paid and the clerk of the court. Since the statute includes a reference to multiple fees and a singular clerk, only one clerk is receiving the money, which means multiple fees can’t be happening at once. Samuels contends that Bruce is reading too much into the text. Plus, Congress did not intend to shift point of reference from a single fee to multiple fees in the middle of the sentence.
Second, what was Congress’s intent with the law? In other words, if Congress meant to deter the prisoners from filing frivolous suits, which interpretation better achieves that goal? Bruce argues his interpretation is far more feasible for prison administrators who, in a per-case scheme, would have to divide fees into smaller amounts, all of which would have to be sent to different clerks. Plus, the bill fails to mention what would happen if, in a per-case scheme, what would occur if the prisoner filed more than five suits and the fees exceeded 100% of their income. Samuels argues, however, that there is no administrative difficulty in the per-case system. In fact, it is the per-prisoner scheme that would present problems, as the statute is silent about the specifics of how aspects of that system would work. He also argues that the relevant of section of the law is written from the perspective of a single suit. The lack of guidance after the fifth suit is likely because Congress doubted anyone would get be able to fire that many suits that wouldn’t be rejected and count towards a prisoner’s three strikes of frivolous lawsuits.
The purpose of the PLRA is to navigate the fine line between discouraging frivolous suits and encouraging meritorious suits. Bruce argues that the per-case approach potentially discourages prisoners from filing meritorious suits because a number of them could take away all of their income. Samuels argues that a per-prisoner approach essentially encourages filing an unlimited amount of suits because one pays the same amount each month. And if a prisoner is released, they are no longer required to pay the fees.
The Constitutional Avoidance Canon, or the decision-making system that encourages making decisions that would avoid potential losses of constitutional rights, is used by Bruce to argue that the per-case scheme would limit a prisoner’s right to access the court. Samuels argues that the canon does not apply here because there is no constitutional right to having one’s fees waived. Plus, the PLRA would allow a prisoner to file a suit even if they have no funds available.
In oral argument, the liberal justices, especially Kagan and Ginsburg, were skeptical of Bruce’s position. They bought neither his wording claims nor his fear of losing all his money because of protections in place that secure $10 in all accounts. Chief Justice Roberts, however, sided with the prisoner. He expressed sympathy for the ability to spend money on books or stamps to send letters to family. Scalia dismissed these concerns, asking if Amazon even makes money on these people. The lawyer for Samuels, an assistant to the Solicitor General, says this is a minor problem; only around sixty federal prisoners are in positions like this. Justices Alito, Kennedy, and Thomas didn’t speak.
The decision came down on January 12, 2016. In a unanimous opinion written by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Court sided with Samuels, the government. The decision was brief and rests on just a bit of substantive legal reasoning. The per-case approach is simply more consistent with the statute. Further, the statute is written in the context of a single filing, not multiple, so we must extrapolate that the process for each filing is the same.
Briefly addressing the potential risk to meritorious case filings, the Court argued that a safety-valve is included in the PLRA, still allowing prisoners to file lawsuits despite their inability to pay the fee. This means ruling for the Bureau of Prisons doesn’t limit individuals’ rights to access the courts.