From him that hath not (updated)

Siluk v. Merwin, No. 11-3996 (3d Cir. Apr. 10, 2015).

The federal courts normally allow indigent litigants to file lawsuits without paying filing fees. The Prison Litigation Reform Act, or PLRA for short, enacted an exception to that rule. Under the PLRA, prisoners, even if they’re indigent, must pay “the full amount of a filing fee.” The PLRA also contains surprisingly complicated requirements about when and how prisoners must pay a filing fee. This appeal is about those requirements. 

Here are the basic requirements. When a prisoner incurs a filing fee, the PLRA requires a prisoner to pay “an initial partial filing fee.” After that initial payment, the PLRA says that a prisoner has to “make monthly payments of 20 percent of the preceding month’s income credited to the prisoner’s account.” If, for example, a prisoner owes money on a filing fee to a district court, and in March receives $100 of income, he must pay $20 toward the filing fee in April. 

But what happens when a prisoner has incurred more than one filing fee? In that case, are the filing fees considered separately in determining what a prisoner has to pay? That is, if a prisoner owes two filing fees, does he have to pay 20% of the preceding month’s income toward the first filing fee, and another 20% toward the second? Or are the two fees not considered separately, in which case he just has to pay 20%? That’s the issue the Third Circuit addresses in this appeal.

No one seems to argue that the PLRA’s language unambiguously mandates one answer or the other. Examining the text, structure, and purpose of the PLRA, the majority of this Third Circuit panel holds that the statute is best read to require a prisoner to pay only 20% of his monthly income toward filing fees, no matter how many fees he’s incurred. Judge Chagares disagrees, so he dissents. 

As the majority and the dissent both note, the circuits are split on this question of statutory interpretation. Only the Supreme Court can answer the question once and for all.

UPDATE (10/22/15): I should have noted a while ago that the Supreme Court has granted cert. on this issue in another case. The Court will hear argument on November 4, after which I will post another update.