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How to Handle Sua Sponte Dismissals of Federal Lawsuits

Who, What, Where, When, and How

Background: You are the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit
Problem: You are unsure whether the Court can spontaneously close your case
Solution: You read the following appellate court precedent to help quell doubt


Answer: Yes.
28 USC §1915(e) governs sua sponte dismissals of "Proceedings in Forma Pauperis". A pauper/indigent almost always sues on an unpaid complaint (the caveat is that a litigant can declare pauper status after paying the filing fee). "Barren appeals the district court's order sua sponte dismissing the third amended complaint of his § 1983 action filed in forma pauperis against various members of the Nevada state law enforcement community..."

"The district court dismissed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e), holding that Barren had failed to present claims cognizable under § 1983..."

"Consequently, the district court did not err in dismissing this third amended complaint."

- Barren v. Harrington, 152 F. 3d 1193 (9th Circuit 1998)

In short, if the Judge determines that your [indigently-litigated] case is not fit for litigation then the statute empowers him/her to spontaneously dismiss your case (at any time).


Answer: Yes (but only conditionally).
Even if you pay the filing fee 28 USC §1915(e) still allows the court to dismiss your case. However, it can only do this after satisfying two conditions:
1. the defendant has been served; and
2. the court has notified you of its intent to spontaneously dismiss your case.
"We now hold that a district court sua sponte may dismiss a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) as long as the dismissal does not precede service of process." - Smith v. Boyd, 945 F.2d 1041 (8th Cir. 1991)

"The rule that emerges from these cases is that courts exercise their inherent power to dismiss a suit that lacks merit only when the party who brought the case has been given notice and an opportunity to respond..."

"The order denying that motion and sua sponte dismissing the case failed to give Wometco its due process rights to file a written response, present its arguments at a hearing, and amend its complaint."
- Jefferson Fourteenth v. Wometco, 695 F.2d 524 (11th Cir. 1983)

In short, under these conditions (service, notification), the trial court can still spontaneously dismiss your case even if you've paid the filing fee.


Answer: No.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals holds that District Courts cannot dismiss paid complaints before the defendant(s) has been served. "While the magistrate judge did not reference 28 U.S.C. § 1915, presumably — as there is nothing in the record that indicates that the defendant was ever served or filed his own motion to dismiss — the magistrate judge was screening the case pursuant to § 1915, which governs in forma pauperis proceedings..."

"The district court erred when it dismissed this case. After paying the filing fee, Makere was not subject to 28 U.S.C. § 1915,5 and the district court could not sua sponte dismiss his case under the screening provisions of § 1915..."

- Makere v Early; 21-11901 (11th Cir. 1991)

This ruling follows the necessities of due process: "Even if its claim ultimately has no merit, a party who brings a claim in good faith has a due process right to litigate that claim." - Jefferson Fourteenth v. Wometco, 695 F.2d 524 (11th Cir. 1983)

"Logically, § 1915(e) only applies to cases in which the plaintiff is proceeding IFP..."

"Therefore, because § 1915, which governs only IFP proceedings, does not apply to Farese's fees-paid RICO claim, the district court was not authorized to dismiss the RICO claim pursuant to § 1915."

- Farese v Scherer, 342 F. 3d 1223 (11th Cir. 2003)

In short, if your Judge tries to dismiss your case before your defendant gets served then you should be able to win your appeal/objection. If you cite Makere v Early or Farese v Scherer then you should be fine.
Additional note: please realize that your judicial circuit (federal) may not accept the 11th Circuit's precedent (see stare decisis).

I. Definitions

Sua Sponte
"Lat.: of itself or of one's self. Without being prompted; refers especially to a court's acting of its own volition (on its own motion), without a motion being made by either of the adverse parties." Dismissal
"a cancellation. Dismissal of a motion is a denial of the motion. Dismissal of a complaint or a related count terminates proceedings on the claim asserted in the complaint."

II. Legal Citations

28 USC §1915(e)(2) | Proceedings in Forma Pauperis
(2) Notwithstanding any filing fee, or any portion thereof, that may have been paid, the court shall dismiss the case at any time if the court determines that-
(A) the allegation of poverty is untrue; or
(B) the action or appeal-
(i) is frivolous or malicious;
(ii) fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted; or
(iii) seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief.

Rule 12(h)(3) Fed. R. Civ. P. | Defenses and Objections...
"(3) Lack of Subject-Matter Jurisdiction. If the court determines at any time that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, the court must dismiss the action."

III. Bibliography


Congratulations! You're now Booked Up on how/why/if a District Court can spontaneously dismiss your civil complaint!

Please get the justice you deserve.


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