AFJ releases report on Coleman-Bey v. Tollefson

 The full report is available here

WASHINGTON, D.C., February 19, 2015: “The future of inmate justice” is on the line in a case that goes before the United States Supreme Court next week, according to a new report from Alliance for Justice.

“Prisoners facing brutality, overcrowding and abysmal health care have had one obstacle after another thrown in the way of their efforts to get justice,” said AFJ President Nan Aron.  “Now the Supreme Court will address a law that can keep those locked in our prisons serving punishment for their crimes locked out of the courts when they face cruel and inhumane treatment behind bars.”

At issue is a provision of the Orwellian titled “Prison Litigation Reform Act” (PLRA).  The law was passed after a smear campaign in which the facts in several high-profile cases were distorted to create a false narrative of lawsuit “horror stories.” It sets a series of barriers to lawsuits filed by prisoners.

Among the onerous provisions of the law is a so-called “three strikes” provision.  Under that provision, depending on the grounds cited by the judge, if an inmate loses three times, then, with very limited exceptions, the inmate cannot have filing fees waived for future lawsuits.  Since very few inmates can afford these costs, it effectively means they are shut out of court entirely.

But what does “three strikes” mean?  In some jurisdictions, an inmate who brings just one case and loses in the trial court, on appeal and at the Supreme Court could  use up all three strikes.  In the case coming before the Supreme Court on Feb. 23, Coleman-Bey v. Tollefson, the inmate had his third suit dismissed, but he is appealing.  When he tried to bring a fourth suit, a district court ruled that he could not have the fees waived because, even though that third case will not be final until the appellate court has ruled, Coleman-Bey has used up his “three strikes.”

“This case highlights a much greater trend of lower courts expanding the PLRA to hand out strikes based on technical errors, poor timing, and reasonable arguments that end up losing,” according to AFJ’s report.  “Even inmates with law degrees, not just the ‘frequent filers’ the PLRA was supposed to target, could now find themselves locked out of our civil justice system.”

“PLRA itself is a solution in search of a problem,” Aron said.  “As with similar claims in so many other fields of civil litigation, the notion that courts are flooded with frivolous lawsuits by prisoners is a myth.”

The AFJ report notes that

Inmates file roughly half as many lawsuits per capita as the general public, but are successful at a similar rate. Even [when they] bring cases without lawyers, inmates have been successful in bringing and winning cases in the United States Supreme Court.

The report notes that the PLRA and its ever more restrictive interpretation are one more example of

the conservative campaign to restrict access to justice.  From forced arbitration, to restricting medical malpractice claims, to overturning civil rights protections, Congress and many courts have worked to shut the courtroom doors and keep powerful wrongdoers from being held accountable. Everyday Americans, particularly our society’s most vulnerable, are losing their ability to stand up for their rights in court.

Alliance for Justice, believes that all Americans have the right to secure justice in the courts and to have their voices heard when government makes decisions that affect their lives. We are a national association of over 100 organizations, representing a broad array of groups committed to progressive values and the creation of an equitable, just, and free society. Through our justice programs, we lead the progressive community in the fight for a fair judiciary, and through our advocacy programs, we help nonprofits and foundations to realize their advocacy potential.