By Christopher Zoukis
The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (“PLRA”), Pub. L. No. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321, is a group of statutory provisions — codified in scattered sections of Title 18, 28, and 42 of the United States Code — designed to impose strict conditions on court filings by incarcerated persons, especially those filling suit via in forma pauperis (“poor person”) status.  Encompassing a wide range of subjects from payments of filing fees to injunctions for prison overcrowding cases, the PLRA has thus far survived numerous attacks on constitutional grounds. See, e.g., Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 210 (2007)(upholding section of PLRA on exhausting administrative remedies).

The PLRA’s Screening Process

One of the key provisions of the PLRA is its “screening” provision.  Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, a federal district court is required, “before docketing, if feasible,” to review any “complaint in a civil action in which a prisoner seeks redress from a government entity or officer or employee of a government entity.” Id., § 1915A(a).  If the court finds that the complaint is “frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted” or “seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief,” the court must dismiss the action.  Courts will also dismiss complaints filed by prisoners who lack standing. Bridges v. Gilbert, 557 F.3d 541, 553 (7th Cir. 2009).  If the case is dismissed in § 1915A screening, the final order is appealable under the standard used in the usual civil context. Janis v. Ashcroft, 348 F.3d 491, 492 (6th Cir. 2003).

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Filing Fees

The PLRA also imposes a mandatory payment provision, in which indigent prisoners must pay the entire filing fee when filing a complaint in federal court, whereas a non-incarcerated person is not required to do so. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b).

When a prisoner’s funds are insufficient to pay the full fee (presently $350.00 in the district courts, $450.00 for appeals), the court is required to assess a partial filing fee of 20% of the greater of either the average monthly deposits to the prisoner’s account, or the average monthly balance of the prisoner’s account for the prior six-month period.  Thereafter, the prisoner must make monthly payments of 20% of the preceding month’s income credited to the prisoner’s account. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(b)(1), (2).  The prison officials having custody of such a prisoner must forward such payments to the court at any time the amount in the account exceeds $10.00 until the filing fees are paid. Id., § 1915(b)(2).

It should be noted that the mandatory payment provision applies even if his or her case has been dismissed. Gallagher v. Shelton, 587 F.3d 1063, 1071 (11th Cir. 2009), and when a prisoner owes multiple filing fees. See Lebron v. Russo, 263 F.3d 38, 41-42. (2d Cir. 2001).

Under no circumstance can a prisoner without funds for the initial filing fee be barred from court review. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b)(4).

A prisoner may be held liable for the full amount of the other party’s costs if his or her suit is unsuccessful; said costs are to be collected in the same manner in which filing fees are collected. Id., §§ 1915(f)(1),(2).

The “Three Strikes” Provision

Courts are required to deny in forma pauperis status to a prisoner who has, “on 3 or more prior occasions, while incarcerated . . . brought an action 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 which relief may be granted[.]” 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g).  This “three strikes” rule has been construed liberally to include those cases dismissed at the screening stage, and for reasons not enumerated above in § 1915(g). O’Neal v. Price, 531 F.3d 1146, 1156 (9th Cir, 2008).

The three strikes provision does not apply if the prisoner “is under imminent danger of serious physical injury.” 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g). See McAlphin v. Toney, 281 F.3d 709, 711 (8th Cir. 2002)(2 infected teeth created imminent danger exception).

The PLRA’s Exhaustion Requirement

The PLRA codified a provision that requires prisoners to exhaust all available administrative remedies prior to challenging prison conditions in a federal action.  42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a).  This provision has spawned a landslide of litigation of its own, given the multitude of factual scenarios that could apply to it.  See, e.g., Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 90-91 (2006)(applying provision to all available remedies and requirements); see also Jones v. Bock, supra, 549 U.S. at 216 (discussing exhaustion as affirmative defense).

The exhaustion requirement has been held applicable even when the remedy sought is not available, as in the case of a prisoner who sought monetary damages, who was required to exhaust available procedures that could not award such damages.  Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731, 734 (2001).  Exhaustion is not required, however, when it cannot be expected that “rational inmates will use the process, or that the remedies are incapable of accommodating the purposes.” Turner v. Burnside, 541 F.3d 1077, 1084-85 (11th Cir. 2008).

Limitations on Relief

The PRLA also limits the relief a prisoner may be granted.  For example, when a prisoner seeks compensatory damages for mental or emotional injuries, he or she must prove that they have suffered physical injury as well. Allah v. Al-Hafeez, 226 F.3d 247, 250-51 (3d Cir. 2000)(First Amendment religious claim does not contain physical injury component).

The extent of physical injury need not be substantial. See, e.g., Flanery v. Bonn, 604 F.3d 249, 254 (6th Cir. 2010)(physical injury shown as to year-long deprivation of toothpaste).

The PLRA’s physical injury requirement does not apply to punitive or nominal damage, Calhoun v. Detella, 319 F.3d 936, 941-42 (7th Cir. 2003), nor does it bar injunctive or declaratory relief. Mitchell v. Horn, 318 F.3d 523, 535 (3d Cir. 2003).

Limitations on Attorney’s Fees

The PLRA sets stringent limitations on the amount of attorney’s fees that a successful prisoner may recover from an official defendant.  For example, up to 25% of any judgment may be applied to satisfy the fees awarded against the defendant. 18 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(2).  The PLRA also limits the amount of attorney’s fees that a prisoner may collect.  The hourly rate for such fees is capped at 150% of the rate for court appointed attorneys in 18 U.S.C. § 3006A. 42 U.S.C. s. § 1997e(d)(3).  If the award of attorney’s fees is less than 150% of the judgment, the defendant must pay the excess above that award. Id., § 1997e(d)(2). See, e.g., Keup v. Hopkins, 596 F.3d 899, 905-06 (8th Cir. 2010)(Attorney fees capped at $1.50 on $1.00 nominal damages award).

Section 1997e permits the award of fees in injunctive proceedings.  Such awards require (1) that the fees were reasonably incurred in proving an actual violation of a plaintiff’s rights, and (2) the amount of the fee was proportionally related to the relief awarded, or that the fees were directly incurred in enforcing a court’s order of relief. 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(1).

The PLRA’s Procedural Provisions

The PLRA created new limitations on many suits seeking injunctive relief as to prison conditions.  For example, any preliminary injunction issued in such a case automatically expires after 90 days, 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(2), and all injunctions automatically terminate after one or two years upon motion of a party or an intervenor. Id., § 3626(b)(1).  However, injunctive relief will not be terminated if a federal judge makes a specific finding that further relief is necessary to correct a current, ongoing violation of a federal right. Id., § 3626(b)(3).  Any injunctive relief must be tailored to “extend no further than necessary to correct the violation of the federal right of a particular plaintiff or plaintiffs.” 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(1)(A).  “Public safety” must be considered in such a case, and orders to release prisoners may not be granted unless (1) a less intrusive order has failed to remedy the situation and (2) the defendant has had a reasonable amount of time to comply with the prior court orders. Id., § 3626(a)(3)(A).  Further, prospective relief subject to a pending motion is automatically stayed in most circumstances. 18 U.S.C. § 3626(e)(2). See Miller v. French, 530 U.S. 327, 339 (2000)(court’s equitable power cannot override or suspend stay).

Further, the PLRA provides that defendants need not reply to a complaint by a prisoner unless a court orders them to do so. 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(g), and revises court procedures in prisoner cases. Id., § 1997e(f).  These measures include using video hearings where practicable, and allows hearings to be conducted at the prison with counsel participating through such technology. Id., § 1997e(f)(2).

Lastly, the PLRA allows for the revocation of a prisoner’s good time credits as a sanction for malicious, harassing or knowingly false litigation. 28 U.S.C. § 1932.

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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