Ninth Circuit Adds Extra Step to Screening Process for Pro Se Prisoner Claims

Groundhog’s Day may not be until February, but several parties in pro se cases may start feeling a sense of de ja vu by seeing screening orders that seem duplicative of orders they’ve seen before. This is the result of a recent case Michael B. Williams v. Audrey King, et al., whereby the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation of the law has led to changes in the screening process.

Background Regarding Screening Process

As many of our readers know, Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”) to help deal with the rising number of prisoner cases. One of the key provisions of the PLRA is the screening process.  Under the law, a federal district court is required to screen complaints brought by prisoners seeking relief against a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity.[1] The court must dismiss a complaint or portion thereof if the prisoner has raised claims that are legally “frivolous or malicious,” that fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or that seek monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.[2]

Prior to November 2017, if an inmate consented to a magistrate judge, the magistrate judge could issue a screening order and dismiss defendants from frivolous complaints before they were even served. The magistrate judge position was specifically created to help assist district court judges in the performing their duties.  This whole process helped ease the burden on district court judges who have large caseloads, and avoided the time and expense of needing to serve defendants in frivolous or malicious cases or in cases where it was clear an inmate failed to state a viable claim.

Ninth Circuit Changes Screening Process

In Williams v. King, inmate Williams filed a Section 1983 action asserting that defendants violated his First and Fifth Amendment rights.  Williams consented to having his case heard by a magistrate judge.  The magistrate judge screened the complaint and dismissed the complaint for failing to state a claim.  Williams appealed the dismissal of his case and was appointed counsel for this appeal.

Williams’ counsel argued that the magistrate judge did not have jurisdiction to dismiss Williams’ complaint because not all parties had consented to the magistrate. Williams argued that even though he had consented to the magistrate, the unserved defendants had not consented.  The State (who was asked by the Ninth Circuit to specially appear and respond to the appeal) argued that plaintiff’s consent alone is enough to satisfy the law.

The Ninth Circuit agreed with Williams, even though his position seems counter-intuitive and against the intent of the PLRA. The screening process was meant to streamline the process and prevent defendants from having to appear and defend against frivolous complaints.  Why should you need the consent of defendants who will be dismissed?  Undoubtedly they would agree to be dismissed.

Nonetheless, the Ninth Circuit held that the language of the law requires “parties” to consent to a magistrate to have jurisdiction over final dismissal of complaints. Because the law does not define the term “parties,” it must look at the plain meeting of the term.  The Ninth Circuit concluded that “parties” means both served and unserved parties. Therefore, the Ninth Circuit reversed the magistrate judge’s dismissal of the Williams case and remanded it to the lower court.

What this Means Now

In light of the Williams decision, magistrate judges have been going through cases where they dismissed complaints with unserved defendants, and re-issuing the screening orders so that the district court can approve these dismissals.  This is why several parties have been seeing screening orders that they have may have already seen before.

In the future, it means that the district court will have to approve screening orders unless all parties (served and unserved) have consented to the jurisdiction of the magistrate judge. As a practical matter, unserved parties will not be appearing in the case simply to consent to a magistrate, so this requirement for the district court judge to approve the screening order will apply in all cases with unserved parties.

Although district court judges typically adopt the findings and recommendations of magistrate judges, the Williams decision unfortunately adds another step into the screening process, which will slow down the process of dismissing frivolous complaints and complaints which clearly fail to state a claim.

[1] 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a).
[2] 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1),(2).

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