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McGhee v. Suliene

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

April 12, 2017




         Plaintiff and prisoner Laderian McGhee is proceeding on a claim that healthcare staff at the Columbia Correctional Institution failed to provide him adequate medical treatment for his seizures, in violation of the Eighth Amendment and state negligence law. Defendants Dalia Suliene and Karen Anderson have not sought summary judgment on the merits, but they ask the court to dismiss the case on two procedural grounds. Dkt. #59.

         First, they say that, when plaintiff submitted his request to proceed in forma pauperis nearly two years ago, he lied about his financial status. Second, they say that plaintiff's claim in this case is barred by the settlement agreement in McGhee v. Suliene, No. 13-cv-67-bbc (W.D. Wis.).

         Although defendants missed the deadline for filing dispositive motions and they did not explain why they waited so long to file a motion that they could have filed as early as August 2015, Magistrate Judge Stephen Crocker allowed briefing on the motion and plaintiff did not object to the timeliness of the motion in his opposition brief. Dkt. #63. Accordingly, I do not consider whether defendants' motion is untimely.

         In an order dated March 22, 2017, dkt. #72, I rejected defendants' second argument because the settlement agreement in case no. 13-cv-67-bbc was limited to issues related to plaintiff's shoulder. However, I deferred a decision regarding plaintiff's alleged misrepresentation because defendants had cited new evidence in their reply brief and I gave plaintiff an opportunity to respond.

         Now that I have reviewed all of the parties' submissions, I conclude that defendants have failed to show that plaintiff engaged in sanctionable conduct. Accordingly, I am denying the motion to dismiss.


         Defendants' request for sanctions has two prongs. First, defendants say that dismissal of the case is required because plaintiff made a false claim of poverty in his request to proceed in forma pauperis. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(A) (“[T]he court shall dismiss the case at any time if the court determines that . . . the allegation of poverty is untrue.”). Second, defendants say, even if plaintiff qualifies for pauper status under § 1915, the court should exercise its discretion to dismiss this case as a sanction because plaintiff's affidavit of indigency contains a false statement.

         In their opening brief, defendants alleged that plaintiff under-reported his assets by $5000, which was the amount of the settlement he received in case no. 13-cv-67-bbc.Although they acknowledged that $5000 generally is not enough to lift someone out of pauper status, they argued that prisoners are different from most litigants because the state pays for most of their living expenses. Alternatively, defendants argued that a false statement in an affidavit of indigency is still an appropriate ground for dismissal under the court's inherent authority, even if dismissal is not required by § 1915(e)(2)(A).

         In his opposition brief and supporting declarations, plaintiff denied that he had made false statements in his affidavit of indigency. First, he acknowledged that he settled case no. 13-cv-67-bbc for $5000 and that he did so so before he submitted his financial information for this case to the court. However, he said he was not supposed to receive that settlement. Rather, as shown by a letter submitted from defense counsel in the earlier case, dkt. #65-1, the settlement check was written sent to his mother. Both plaintiff and his mother averred that their intent was for the money to be used for a debt his mother owed and expenses for plaintiff's daughter. Dkt. #65, ¶ 7; dkt. #66, ¶¶ 3-5.

         The potential problem with plaintiff's story is that he received two electronic transfers from his mother-one for $300 and one for $400-around the same time that he sent his financial information to the court, but he included neither of those deposits in his affidavit of indigency. Plaintiff's explanation for that is that, at the time he sent his financial information to the court, he was not aware that he would be receiving those deposits.

         Timing is key. Plaintiff says he mailed his financial information to the court on April 28, 2015, dkt. #65, ¶ 14, but he did not know about the deposits to his account until he received receipts from prison staff, which occurred on April 29, 2015, and May 3, 2015. (Neither plaintiff nor defendants provided copies of those receipts to the court.) Both plaintiff and his mother aver that she did not tell plaintiff in advance that she would be sending him that money. Dkt. #65, ¶ 11; dkt. #66, ¶ 6.

         If this account is true, plaintiff did not engage in any sanctionable conduct. Although defendants suggest that plaintiff gave money to his mother to avoid paying his filing fee, they cite no evidence for that view. They also cite no authority for the view that plaintiff should have reported a settlement he did not believe he was going to receive.

         Defendants do not argue that plaintiff was required to amend his financial disclosures if he did not learn about the deposits until after he sent his information to the court. I see no reason why he would have been required to do so. The court's financial form that plaintiff completed does not instruct the prisoner to amend his financial information if his circumstances change after he mails the form to the court. Further, if plaintiff had informed the court about the deposits, that information would not have changed anything. A deposit of several hundred dollars would not be enough to disqualify a prisoner from proceeding in forma pauperis. Although that amount of money could make a difference in calculating a prisoner's initial partial payment of the filing fee, the court does not rely on a prisoner's self-reporting when making that calculation. Rather, the court relies on the prisoner's trust fund ...

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