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Lyons v. Beard

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

April 25, 2014

ERIC LYONS, Plaintiff,
v.
JEFFREY BEARD, et al., Defendants.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

MARTIN C. CARLSON, Magistrate Judge.

I. Introduction

In the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Congress established a series of procedures relating to prisoner civil litigation in federal court, procedures "designed to filter out the bad claims and facilitate consideration of the good." Jones v. Bock , 549 U.S. 199, 204 (2007). One critical component of these reforms calls upon federal courts to perform a gatekeeping function with respect to pro se inmates who repeatedly seek leave to proceed in forma pauperis while filing frivolous or meritless claims. As part of this statutorily mandated process, we are obliged to screen civil complaints lodged by pro se litigants who wish to proceed in forma pauperis, deny such leave to prisoners who have on three or more prior occasions filed frivolous or meritless claims in federal court, and dismiss these inmate complaints, unless the inmate alleges facts showing that he is in imminent damage of serious bodily harm. 28 U.S.C. §1915(g).

In the instant case, we are now called upon to perform this function, a function which is an integral part of these Congressional "reforms designed to filter out the bad claims and facilitate consideration of the good" in this field. Jones v. Bock , 549 U.S. 199, 204 (2007). Upon consideration of this case, given the limited record before us, we conclude that it has not yet been shown that the plaintiff has had three prior cases dismissed "on the grounds that it is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, " 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g), since we cannot discern whether all of the three purported strikes identified by the defendants would qualify as a "strike" for purposes of §1915(g)'s three strike rule. Having made these findings, we recommend that the Court deny the motion to revoke in forma pauperis status, without prejudice to the defendants pursuing this matter on a more fully developed record.

II. Statement of Facts and of the Case

On December 9, 2013, the plaintiff, Eric Lyons, a state prisoner who is proceeding pro se, commenced this lawsuit. (Doc. 1.) Lyons' complaint raised a host of constitutional concerns, but none of these concerns appeared to be of an imminently life-threatening nature, and in his motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis Lyons does not allege that he faces any imminent threat to his life or safety. (Doc. 2.) On the basis of this initial showing the Court provisionally granted Lyons leave to proceed in forma pauperis, and ordered his complaint served upon the defendants. (Doc. 8.)

The defendants have now moved to revoke Lyons' in forma pauperis status, (Doc. 17.), citing three prior case dismissals suffered by Lyons between 1997 and 2005. (Doc. 19.) Because the defendants are forced to rely upon dated case dismissals in several instances to support this motion their current evidentiary presentation in support of the motion is understandably sparse in some respects. Thus, at the outset, the defendants provide us with the docket in Lyons v. Ward, No. 97-7583 (3d Cir.), an appeal that was resolved in a per curiam decision. Notably, nothing in this docket indicates the basis for the per curiam decision, and the docket simply indicates a dismissal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1915(e)(2)(B). (Doc. 19, Ex. A.)

The defendants then cite the docket sheet in another, dated case Lyons v. Horn, No. 98-1596. (W.D. Pa.) That second docket, by itself, is also ambiguous, indicating that a motion to dismiss, or in the alternative for summary judgment, was granted by the district court and that Lyons later filed an appeal which was dismissed for failure to prosecute. (Doc. 19, Ex. B.)

Finally, the defendants attach to their motion a screening dismissal order in a third case. Lyons v. Beard, No. 05-0786. (M.D. Pa.). This order dismissed Lyons' complaint without prejudice, and Lyons then chose to neither appeal this ruling, or amend this particular complaint. (Doc. 19, Ex. C.) On the basis of these limited court records, the defendants allege that Lyons has now suffered three strikes and is disqualified from proceeding in forma pauperis in this case.

For his part, Lyons has responded to this motion to revoke his in forma pauperis status by arguing that none of the purported strikes identified by the defendants could qualify as strikes under §1915(g). (Doc. 22.) This motion is fully briefed and, therefore, is ripe for resolution. For the reasons set forth below, it is recommended that the defendants motion to revoke in forma pauperis status be denied, without prejudice.

II. DISCUSSION

A. 28 U.S.C. §1915(g) - The Legal Standard

Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, this Court has an affirmative duty to screen and review prisoner complaints filed by inmates like Lyons who seek leave to proceed in forma pauperis. 28 U.S.C. §1915A. One aspect of this review, a review "designed to filter out the bad claims and facilitate consideration of the good, " Jones v. Bock , 549 U.S. 199, 204 (2007), entails ensuring that inmates who have abused this privilege in the past are not permitted to persist in further in forma pauperis litigation. Towards that end, Congress enacted 28 U.S.C. §1915(g), which provides in pertinent part that:

In no event shall a prisoner bring a civil action or appeal a judgment in a civil action or proceeding under this section if the prisoner has, on 3 or more prior 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 ...

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