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Burnside headed back to the Sixth Circuit?

Last week in Burnside v. Walters, the Court took the fairly unusual step of granting cert. without having first received a brief from any of the respondents in the case:  the case’s online docket indicates that the Court called for a response in mid-February, but apparently none ever arrived.  The petition for certiorari (along with an amicus brief) was eventually distributed for the Justices’ May 9 Conference, and an order granting review followed a few days later.  However, thanks to a decision issued today by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in another case, Burnside’s stint on the Court’s merits docket could be short-lived. 

The question presented in Burnside is a straightforward one.  A provision of federal law, 28 U.S.C. § 1915, allows indigent plaintiffs to file their lawsuits in forma pauperis (IFP) – that is, without paying the filing fees.  Subsection (e)(2)(B) of that law provides, among other things, that the federal court “shall dismiss the case at any time if the court determines that . . . [the case] fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted.”

Burnside filed a civil rights lawsuit in which he alleged that the Memphis police had wrongfully arrested him for making a call to 911 in a non-emergency situation; Burnside contends that the 911 call was actually made by his mother, who was worried about his safety when his cell phone battery died during the middle of a telephone conversation in which he complained about health problems.

Before Burnside’s complaint, which he filed under the IFP statute, was even served on the defendants, the district court dismissed it with prejudice for failure to state a claim on which it could grant relief.   Burnside then appealed that dismissal to the Sixth Circuit, arguing that the district court should have at least allowed him to amend his complaint.  The Sixth Circuit affirmed in an unpublished – and hence non-precedential – opinion, relying on a 1997 decision in which it had held that Section 1915(e)(2)(B) affirmatively prohibits indigent plaintiffs from amending their complaints.  Burnside then filed a petition for certiorari, citing a conflict between the Sixth Circuit’s decision and the decisions of all eleven other circuits.

Although the Court almost certainly granted certiorari in Burnside’s case to resolve the circuit split, this morning’s decision by the Sixth Circuit effectively did so first in LaFountain v. Harry, a case filed by a Michigan prisoner who alleges that prison officials retaliated against him after he filed administrative grievances and lawsuits.  After screening LaFountain’s complaint, the district court dismissed it with prejudice for failure to state a claim.

Represented by the Vanderbilt Appellate Litigation Clinic, LaFountain then appealed to the Sixth Circuit, which reversed on this question and, in so doing, reached the opposite result from the Burnside court – this time in a precedential decision.  It relied on the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Jones v. Bock, holding that the requirement that a district court screen a prisoner’s complaint before allowing it to proceed does not, as a general rule, “justify deviating from the usual procedural practices.”  Because the screening requirements “say nothing about whether a district court can allow a prisoner to amend his complaint,” the court of appeals continued, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a) – which allows a plaintiff to amend his complaint once as of right within twenty-one days of filing and instructs courts to “freely give leave [to amend] when justice so requires” – a district court can allow an indigent plaintiff to amend his complaint even when it would be subject to dismissal under Section 1915(e).

Because the Sixth Circuit’s decision today in LaFountain was a published one, it is now the law of the Sixth Circuit – and means that Burnside would now prevail there.  It also means that the circuit conflict has resolved itself without the need for the Court to decide the question.  It thus seems very likely that the Court – either on its own initiative, once it becomes aware of the LaFountain decision, or at the behest of one of the parties to the case – will issue an order that vacates the unpublished ruling in Burnside and remands the case to the Sixth Circuit for reconsideration in light of its new precedent in LaFountain.

(Many thanks to the reader who notified us of the Sixth Circuit’s decision today.)

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Burnside headed back to the Sixth Circuit?, SCOTUSblog (May. 22, 2013, 11:02 PM),