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Biden Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Fully Reverse Lower Court Ruling that Poor Prisoner Cannot File Lawsuit Without Paying Fees and Costs

An image of handcuffs, a gavel, and Lady Justice.

Judge Alison Nathan, nominated by President Biden to the Second Circuit court of appeals, cast the deciding vote in part of a ruling that reversed a district court  decision that a poor prisoner could not file a lawsuit without first paying court fees and costs. The March 2024 decision was in Cotton v Noeth.


What is the background of this case?                        

Maurice Cotton is a New York prisoner. He filed a federal lawsuit claiming he was the victim of improper retaliation and a transfer refusal. Because he is indigent, he sought to file the suit in forma pauperis (IFP), without having to first pay court filing fees and costs.

 District judge John Sinatra, who was nominated  to the bench by former President Trump,  denied Cotton’s IFP motion. Sinatra held that three prior IFP suits by Cotton had been dismissed as frivolous or on the merits, so that under the Prison Litigation Reform Act’s (PLRA’s) “three strikes” rule, Cotton could not seek IFP status in any future suits, including this one. Cotton appealed to the Second Circuit.


How Did Judge Nathan and the Second Circuit Rule and Why Is It Important?

 All three of the judges on the appellate panel agreed that two of the prior decisions against claims by Cotton should not count as “strikes” under the PLRA. One such case involved a dismissal only in part, which precedent made clear cannot count as a PLRA strike. A second dismissal did not count, the court explained, because the Supreme Court has ruled that “there is no strike” when the prisoner is “given an opportunity to amend his complaint,” which occurred in that case.

The three judges were divided, however, on whether the dismissal of a third case should count as a PLRA strike, which could have important implications for future lawsuits by Cotton. The third case was a suit for damages by Cotton because he contended that his conviction was unconstitutional. Relying on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Heck v Humphreys, the lower court held that the lawsuit was premature because proceedings to challenge the conviction were still pending.  The lower court ruled that this third case counted as a PLRA strike, in accord with decisions by several federal courts of appeal and other New York district courts. Judge John Walker, nominated to the Second Circuit by President George H.W. Bush, agreed.

Judge Nathan cast the deciding vote, however, to reverse the lower court on this issue. The majority explained that the circuits are divided on the issue of whether a dismissal because a case is premature under Heck counts as a PLRA strike, and that the Second Circuit had not considered the question. Some other circuits have ruled that a Heck dismissal should not necessarily be counted as a PLRA strike.

The majority in this case, in which Judge Nathan cast the deciding vote, ruled that whether a Heck dismissal counts as a PLRA strike depends on the circumstances, and the situation in Cotton’s case did not warrant making it a PLRA strike. Judge Denny Chin, an Obama nominee, explained for the majority that whether such a dismissal counts as a PLRA strike should depend on “whether the dismissal turned on the merits or whether it was simply a matter of sequencing or timing.” In this case, the majority went on, the lower court had made clear that it dismissed the case because it “was premature” and not on the merits. The majority thus ruled that the third dismissal does not count as a PLRA strike against Cotton.

The decision was obviously important to Maurice Cotton and his ability to file his retaliation lawsuit  without first paying filing fees and courts. It also establishes a precedent in the Second Circuit, which includes New York, Connecticut, and Vermont, which will help indigent prisoners in the future. In addition, the decision also serves as a reminder of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded nominees like Judge Nathan to our federal courts.