Lomax v. Ortiz-Marquez et al.

Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Tenth Circuit

No. 18-8369. Argued February 26, 2020--Decided June 8, 2020

The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA) established what has become known as the three-strikes rule, which generally prevents a prisoner from bringing suit in forma pauperis (IFP) if he has had three or more prior suits “dismissed on the grounds that [they were] frivolous, malicious, or fail[ed] to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” 28 U. S. C. §1915(g).

   Petitioner Arthur Lomax, an inmate in a Colorado prison, filed this suit against respondent prison officials to challenge his expulsion from the facility’s sex-offender treatment program. He also moved for IFP status, but he had already brought three unsuccessful legal actions during his time in prison. If the dispositions of those cases qualify as strikes under Section 1915(g), Lomax may not now proceed IFP. The courts below concluded that they did, rejecting Lomax’s argument that two of the dismissals should not count as strikes because they were without prejudice.

Held: Section 1915(g)’s three-strikes provision refers to any dismissal for failure to state a claim, whether with prejudice or without.

  This case begins, and pretty much ends, with Section 1915(g)’s text. The provision’s broad language covers all dismissals for failure to state a claim, whether issued with or without prejudice to a plaintiff’s ability to reassert his claim in a later action. A strike-call under Section 1915(g) thus hinges exclusively on the basis for the dismissal, regardless of the decision’s prejudicial effect. To reach the opposite result would require reading the word “dismissed” in Section 1915(g) as “dismissed with prejudice.” Doing so would also introduce inconsistencies into the PLRA, which has three other provisions mentioning “dismiss[als]” for “fail[ure] to state a claim.” §§1915(e)(2)(B)(ii), 1915A(b); 42 U. S. C. §1997e(c). As the parties agree, those provisions do not deprive courts of the ability to dismiss suits without prejudice.

  Lomax nonetheless maintains that Section 1915(g)’s phrase “dismissed [for] fail[ure] to state a claim” is a “legal term of art” referring only to dismissals with prejudice. To support this view, he points to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(b), which tells courts to treat a dismissal “as an adjudication on the merits”—meaning a dismissal with prejudice—where the dismissal order does not specify. But Rule 41(b) is necessary precisely because “dismissed for failure to state a claim” refers to dismissals both with and without prejudice. The existence of the rule thus undercuts Lomax’s position.

  Lomax also argues that the Court should interpret the phrase “failure to state a claim” based on the other two grounds for dismissal listed in Section 1915(g). But contra Lomax’s view, courts can and sometimes do dismiss at least frivolous actions without prejudice. Still more fundamentally, interpreting the phrase “failure to state a claim” based on the pre-existing terms “frivolous” and “malicious” would defeat the PLRA’s expansion of the statute beyond what was already there. Pp. 3–7.

754 Fed. Appx. 756, affirmed.

 Kagan, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, JJ., joined, and in which Thomas, J., joined as to all but footnote 4.