Paul Ferrer—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group
Federal courts may be inundated with frivolous pleadings filed by prisoners or other claimants proceeding in forma pauperis. But the courts have powerful statutory weapons for dealing with such pleadings and dismissing them at the earliest stage of a proceeding, if warranted. In fact, federal courts are specifically required to screen prisoner actions and dismiss them if they fail to pass muster. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A.
Section 1915A affirmatively requires the district court to review, before docketing if feasible or as soon as practicable after docketing, every civil complaint in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity. Id. § 1915A(a). After reviewing the complaint, the court must either identify any cognizable claims or dismiss all or part of the complaint if it is “frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” Id. § 1915A(b)(1). Another federal statute similarly requires a district court to dismiss any proceeding brought in forma pauperis if the court determines, “at any time,” that the action is “frivolous or malicious” or “fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted.” Id. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i), (ii).
Under either statute, an action is “frivolous” if it “lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact.” Eyster v. James T. Vaughn Med. Dep’t, Civ. A. No. 18-1628-RGA, 2019 WL 1854634, at *1 (D. Del. Apr. 25, 2019) (quoting Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989)). Thus, a court may dismiss a complaint as frivolous under either statute if, for example, it is based on an “indisputably meritless legal theory” or a “fantastic or delusional” factual scenario. Id. (quoting Neitzke, 490 U.S. at 327-28). An action is “malicious” if it threatens violence or “contains disrespectful references to the court” or is otherwise “plainly abusive of the judicial process.” Crisafi v. Holland, 655 F.2d 1305, 1309 (D.C. Cir. 1981). Finally, whether a prisoner or in forma pauperis proceedings fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted is determined by the familiar standard for ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See Eyster, 2019 WL 1854634, at *1. Under that standard, the action must be dismissed unless the plaintiff pleads facts, as opposed to mere labels and conclusions, sufficient to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)).
If the prisoner or in forma pauperis proceeding is filed pro se, then the plaintiff is entitled to have his or her pleading held to a less stringent standard than a formal pleading drafted by a lawyer. See Eyster, 2019 WL 1854634, at *1. But even a liberally construed pleading must still pass muster under the standards set forth in 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2) and 1915A(b). A quick look at the number of cases being dismissed under the authority of these statutes shows that the federal courts are not hesitant to clear their dockets of frivolous pleadings using one or both of these tools.