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Coleman-Bey v. Tollefson (U.S. Sup. Ct.)

Coleman-Bey v. Tollefson was a case involving the proper interpretation of the “three strikes” provision of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a provision that implicates the Constitution’s guarantee of meaningful access to the courts.  Pursuant to a federal statute, indigent litigants are allowed to file claims in court without paying the required filing fees; this is known as proceeding in forma pauperis (“IFP”).  The Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”) contains a “three strikes” provision that denies IFP status to prisoners who have on three or more prior occasions brought an action or appeal in a federal court that was dismissed on the grounds that it was frivolous, malicious, or failed to state a claim upon which a court could have granted relief. 

In 2010, André Lee Coleman-Bey, an inmate in a Michigan state prison, filed a civil rights action in the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan against six of the prison’s employees, asserting that they had violated his constitutional rights by interfering with his access to the courts.  Because Coleman-Bey had previously filed three suits that were dismissed by federal district courts, the district court denied Mr. Coleman-Bey’s motion to proceed IFP, citing the PLRA’s “three strikes” provision.  In this case, Mr. Coleman-Bey contends that the third of the dismissals should not count as a “strike” because it was still on appeal at the time he filed the complaint against the correctional facility employees (and when the district court denied him leave to proceed IFP).  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision.  Mr. Coleman-Bey filed a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, asking the Supreme Court to hear his case.

On June 4, 2014, CAC filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the Petition, urging the Court to grant review and hold that a dismissal does not count as a “strike” under the PLRA while it remains subject to reversal on appeal.  On October 2, 2014, the Court granted the Petition, and on December 8, 2014, we filed a merits-stage amicus curiae brief in support of Mr. Coleman-Bey. As we explained in our brief, the Framers conferred broad power on the federal courts to ensure that they would be able to protect individual liberty and ensure compliance with the Constitution and the nation’s laws.  Reflecting the Framers’ vision, the Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that all people, including prisoners and the indigent, must have meaningful access to the courts to present fundamental constitutional claims.  If a dismissal that can be overturned on appeal constitutes a strike for PLRA purposes, then the statute imposes an exceptionally stringent barrier on prisoners’ ability to access the courts.  We argued that there is a serious question whether the PLRA, as interpreted by the lower court in this case, is constitutional under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses, and that given these serious constitutional concerns, a dismissal should not count as a “strike” until it has been affirmed on appeal or the time for appellate review has expired.

The Court heard oral argument on February 23, 2015.  On May 18, 2015, the Court unanimously decided that a dismissed claim counts as a strike under the PLRA’s three strikes provision even while an appeal of that dismissal remains pending.  This ruling conflicts with the rulings of the vast majority of lower federal courts to have considered the issue and will inhibit the ability of indigent litigants to access the justice system.  While the Court recognized that its reading of the statute “might wrongly deprive a prisoner of in forma pauperis status,” it nonetheless dismissed that risk as “not seem[ing] great.”  In this decision, the Court essentially took the perspective that prisoners do not bring meritorious claims and relied on that belief to limit access to the courts by a population greatly in need of it.