Rosa v. Doe
No. 21-2628, Nov. 20, 2023; WL 8009400 (2d Cir. 2023)
- When assessing whether an incarcerated person qualifies for a waiver of filing fees in a federal civil rights case, it is an abuse of discretion for the court to fail to properly consider the movant’s obligations to support dependents back home as part of the ability to pay analysis.
- It is also an abuse of discretion for the court to assume that an incarcerated person has no expenses, simply because the state provides “room and board.”
Facts & Procedural History
Alexander Rosa, an inmate in the custody of the State of Connecticut at Osborn Correctional Institution, filed a pro se federal civil rights complaint against the prison for preventing him proper access to medical care. To avoid the $402 federal court filing fee, Rosa moved for leave to proceed in forma pauperis, submitting the form provided by the District of Connecticut Clerk’s Office, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915. The federal statute allows litigants to bring a suit “without prepayment of fees or security therefore” so long as the litigant submits an affidavit “that includes a statement of all assets” that they possess. § 1915(a)(1). The form asked for Rosa’s income and any other sources of money, the current balance of his inmate account, the total value of property that he owned, and his approximate monthly contributions to support family members. Rosa submitted that he had no income, supported his mother and son with monthly payments totaling $86.66, and had an account balance of $576.98 at the time of filing. He also filed a separate request for appointment of counsel in the case using the same information to demonstrate his indigency. The district court denied Rosa’s application to file in forma pauperis, finding that, because his inmate account contained more than the $402 required to pay the filing fee, and because his room and board were provided by the prison, he was not entitled to a filing fee waiver. The court also noted that Rosa had received federal stimulus money and found that using that money to support his family rather than pay the filing fee was his choice. Rosa timely appealed his case to the Second Circuit.
The Second Circuit concluded that the district court did in fact commit an “abuse of discretion” when they denied Rosa’s motion to proceed In Forma Pauperis. Citing earlier U.S. Supreme Court precedent (Adkins v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., 335 U.S. 331 (1948)) the Circuit Court concluded that, to qualify for federal in forma pauperis, complainants must demonstrate only that they “cannot because of [their] poverty pay or give security for the costs and still be able to provide [themselves] and dependents with the necessities of life.”Id. The court rejected the state’s claims that Rosa’s mother was not a legitimate dependent, holding that the federal statute must be read broadly. The Circuit Court also took issue with the lower court’s findings that because a state provides prisoners with room and board individual prisoners have no other expenses. The court reasoned that “prisoners may well have financial obligations that warrant consideration [under the statute]: medical debts, court fines, student loans, support orders, among other examples. Moreover, prisons all too frequently fail to provide necessary hygiene essentials and often charge substantial rates for postage and phone calls that prisoners need to maintain relationships with family and friends.” The Second Circuit concluded that courts must consider all the aspects of a prisoner’s financial status including any dependents the prisoner may be providing for, as well as any personal expenses beyond the mere room and board that the state provides while incarcerated.
Ultimately, the Circuit Court determined that Mr. Rosa did, in fact, demonstrate that his financial condition precluded him from prepaying the costs of his suit while providing for the necessities of life for him and his dependents, even with the heightened standard for prisoners under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”). The statute “does not require a litigant to demonstrate absolute destitution; no party must be made to choose between abandoning a potentially meritorious claim or foregoing the necessities of life.” Although Rosa possessed more than the $402 filing fee, he had nonetheless established that he could not pay the costs associated with this suit and still provide the necessities of life for himself and his dependents.