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By Mark Wilson

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held in March 2014 that a district court had abused its discretion when it dismissed a prisoner’s suit for failure to pay a filing fee without determining his ability to pay.

Indiana prisoner Leonard Thomas filed suit in 2012, alleging inadequate medical care for his epilepsy. He moved to proceed in forma pauperis based on a prison trust account balance of $0.02 and an average monthly balance of $43.50.

The district court granted his motion, assessed a partial filing fee of $8.40 and ordered Thomas to pay the fee within three weeks. When he failed to do so, the court dismissed his lawsuit without prejudice.

Thomas objected, claiming he had no money or income and that any money he received was automatically deducted from his account and applied to the debt he had incurred when printing his complaint. The court ignored his letter and he appealed.

“Although the district court properly assessed the initial partial filing fee,” the Seventh Circuit concluded that it had “abused its discretion by dismissing the case without determining whether Thomas was at fault for not paying that initial fee.”

Citing Fifth, Seventh, Ninth and Eleventh Circuit precedent, the Court of Appeals wrote that “because a court may not dismiss the suit of a prisoner who has ‘a lack of funds in the account,’ the court must determine if nonpayment happened for that reason.” Therefore, “the district court should have attempted to learn why the fee had not been paid” before dismissing the suit.

The appellate court recognized that Thomas’ ending account balance was $0.02, he had received no deposits in the previous two months and only $1.50 had been deposited within the previous three months. “But the truth of his assertion that he lacked funds, and whether he can be faulted for lacking them, is for the district court to determine in the first instance,” the Court stated in remanding the case. See: Thomas v. Butts, 745 F.3d 309 (7th Cir. 2014).

(Published by Prison Legal News; used by permission)

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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