By Rolf Garcia-Gallont

In Cassell v. Dawkins, an unpublished civil opinion released on February 5, 2015, the Fourth Circuit vacated a district court judgment that had dismissed a prisoner’s action brought in forma pauperis, pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”).

District Court Denies IFP Status and Dismisses Complaint

Charles Cassell, a North Carolina  inmate, filed a § 1983 civil action against corrections officers who he claimed had deprived him of his constitutional rights while he was incarcerated. He filed his claim in forma pauperis (“IFP”), which would have allowed him to pay the court filing fee over time, instead of requiring the full amount at the time of filing.

The district court denied Cassell IFP status because he had brought three prior lawsuits that were dismissed as frivolous or for failing to state a claim, which barred him from bringing new IFP cases under the “three strikes” rule. The district court dismissed Cassell’s complaint without prejudice, allowing him to refile when he could pay the full $400 filing fee.

The “Three Strikes” Rule

The “three strikes” provision of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 28 U.S.C. 1915(g), generally prohibits a prisoner from proceeding in forma pauperis in federal court if “the prisoner has, on 3 or more prior occasions, while incarcerated . . . brought an action or appeal 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.”

In 2011, the Fourth Circuit held in Tolbert v. Stevenson that for a dismissal to qualify as a “strike” under § 1915(g), the entire action must be dismissed as frivolous or malicious or for failure to state a claim.

An Action That Was Dismissed Partly on Statute of Limitations Grounds and Partly for Failure to State a Claim Does Not Qualify as a “Strike”

One of the cases identified by the district court as qualifying as a “strike” under § 1915(g) was a case that had been dismissed only partly for failure to state a claim, and partly on statute of limitations grounds. The Fourth Circuit held that under Tolbert, this case did not qualify as a strike.

Judgment Vacated and Case Remanded