A three-judge panel of a federal appeals court has ruled that the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) applies only to lawsuits filed by people who are incarcerated at the time they file the lawsuit, not to those formerly incarcerated.
On May 19, in Olivas v. Nevada, the 9th Circuit panel reinstated a lawsuit brought by Dario Olivas, a former inmate in Nevada’s High Desert State Prison, that he had filed against the prison, one corrections officer that was named, and 10 unnamed officers.
In July 2012, Olivas was eating in the prison dining hall when a fight broke out nearby. Nevada equips its corrections officers with shotguns loaded with birdshot – one of the only states that does so. One officer quickly fired at the fighting inmates. Olivas, who wasn’t involved in the fight, was hit by pellets in his upper body, face, and eye. As a result of that, and the allegedly inadequate medical treatment of the injury, he lost sight in one eye and was permanently disfigured.
After being released almost two years later, acting as his own lawyer, Olivas filed a state court lawsuit, alleging his injuries were caused by unconstitutional actions of prison officers and violations of various state laws. After the case was moved to the federal district court, the presiding judge reviewed the case using procedures set in the PLRA.
Adopted by Congress in 1995, the PLRA was designed to crack down on frivolous lawsuits by creating new requirements for prisoner lawsuits, in order to ease courts’ caseload burdens. One section of the new law disallows filing of claims that are malicious, frivolous, don’t state a claim on which relief can be granted, or which seek monetary damages from an immune defendant.
PLRA also prohibits prisoner-filed lawsuits over prison conditions unless the inmate has first exhausted available administrative remedies. The PLRA doesn’t specify what administrative remedies a state must provide, but the Supreme Court has clearly held they must be completed before a prisoner’s lawsuit may be heard.
Finding the case failed to meet PLRA standards, the judge then dismissed the federal and constitutional claims, and sent the state law claims to a state court, which soon dismissed them as well. He did allow Olivas a chance to amend his lawsuit, however. Now aided by counsel, Olivas renewed his case, claiming the officers intended to harm him.
The revised complaint then came back to the judge for another PLRA review, and was again found deficient. The case could not go forward, the judge ruled, because Olivas had not offered any basis for showing intent to harm him. Instead, the court viewed the shotgun injury as an unintentional consequence of a good-faith effort to restore order.
But when the dismissal went to the federal appeals court, the three-judge panel focused on a new question: whether PLRA screening was appropriate for a lawsuit filed by a former inmate, not a current prisoner. Based on the statute’s definition of “prisoner,” they decided it was not, overriding the lower court’s dismissal and reviving Olivas’ case. Because Olivas was not in custody at the time he filed the lawsuit, it was wrong for the lower court to screen it for compliance with PLRA requirements.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington Post, New York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.