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Media Alerts - Siluk v. Merwin - Third Circuit
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April 14, 2015
  Siluk v. Merwin - Third Circuit
Headline: Third Circuit Holds Inmates' Repayment of Filing Fees Capped

Area of Law: Prison Litigation Reform Act, Civil Procedure

Issues Presented: Does the Prison Litigation Reform Act require - where an inmate has proceeded in forma pauperis in multiple courts - that statutorily mandated payments be capped at 20%?

Brief Summary:

Michael Siluk, an indigent inmate, filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania alleging that he had been wrongfully deprived of his federal tax refund while in prison. When the District Court ruled against him, he filed an appeal with the Third Circuit. When Siluk filed both the original case and his appeal, he was charged court costs of $350 and $505 respectively. However, because he was indigent, he was not required to pre-pay these costs, as is the case with most other litigants. However, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) does require that he make a down payment on the fees and then pay off the balance with a 20% monthly charge to his prison income (currently $40 per month). On appeal, however, Siluk asked the Third Circuit to consolidate the filing fees for both cases into one and to cap the total monthly charge at 20% of his income, thereby allowing him to pay off the two fees sequentially and not at the same time. The government, on the other hand, asked the Third Circuit to require simultaneous payment of both fees, meaning that a 20% charge would be made against his monthly income for each fee, thereby creating a total assessment equal to 40% of his income. On the basis of the statutory language, the statutory purpose, and Constitutional concerns, the Court found for Siluk, holding that the filing fees should be paid sequentially in the order incurred, subject to the 20% income cap. This result agreed with that reached by two other Circuit Courts - the Second and the Fourth - and rejected that reached by the Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, Tenth, and D.C. Circuits. There was a dissenting opinion.

Extended Summary:

The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) provides that inmates who file lawsuits, if unable to fully pay court filing fees, will have up to 20% of the previous months' income debited each month to satisfy the fee. Michael Siluk, a prisoner who filed an appeal to a district court judgment on another matter, was denied his motion to combine the filing fees for his initial lawsuit and subsequent appeal. Siluk argued that separating the filing fees in this manner would violate the PLRA's 20% limit on by allowing anywhere from 40% to 100% of the inmate's monthly income to be garnished to pay court costs, if enough cases (from 2 to 5 or more) were filed.

The Third Circuit examined the text, structure, and purpose of the Prison Litigation Reform Act to determine whether sequential, as argued by Siluk, or simultaneous, as argued by the government, repayment of the filing fees was required by the PLRA. The Third Circuit held that, taken together, repayments were intended by Congress to be limited to 20% no matter how many filing fees were involved. In doing so, the Third Circuit rejected the simultaneous approach adopted by the Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, Tenth, and D.C. Circuits.

First the Third Circuit examined the language of Subsection b(1) - providing for initial payment of filing fees on a case by case basis - and b(2) - providing for payments on any deficit in the b(1) payment capped at 20% of the preceding months income. The Third Circuit held that the language of the statute was not inconsistent with requiring sequential payment of filing fees capped at 20% of the previous month's income.

Turning to Congressional intent, the Third Circuit balanced between Congress's intent to prevent the filing of frivolous lawsuits and the desire to not punish inmates for filing valid claims. Noting that the statute is more concerned with ensuring payment than with when the fee is paid, the Third Circuit held that sequential payments are sufficient to deter inmates from filing frivolous lawsuits - and also noting the stronger "three strikes" rule that bars claimants from obtaining indigent filing status (known as in forma pauperis) if they file three or more frivolous claims. The Third Circuit rejected the view adopted by Seventh Circuit on the grounds that the burden of owing additional filing fees is sufficient to create deterrence.

Lastly the Third Circuit agreed that requiring an inmate to pay up to 100% of his income could have 8th Amendment implications. Where an inmate must purchase basic hygiene supplies with his own income, the Third Circuit held, statutory provisions significantly garnishing that prisoner's income would impermissibly restrict access to the judicial system.

Find the full opinion at:

Panel: Mckee, Chief Judge and Chagares, Garth, Circuit Judges

Argument Date: May 21, 2014

Date of Issued Opinion: April 10, 2015

Docket Number: No. 11-3996

Decided: Denial of Motion reversed

Case Alert Author: Philip Jones


Paige H. Forster (argued), Patrick M. Emery, Esq., Gregory B. Jordan, Esq. for Appellant

Jeffrey E. Sandberg (argued) for Amicus Curiae

Author of Opinion: McKee, Chief Judge

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Mark Anderson

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 04/14/2015 09:16 AM     3rd Circuit  

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