There’s Wrong and Then There’s Really, Really Wrong

Whenever a trial court ruling is reversed on appeal, the appellate court is effectively telling the trial court, “You got it wrong.” In some cases, however, a district court has to do more than issue a ruling on the merits of a case; it must opine on the likely success of an appeal from its ruling. For example, where a losing party seeks a stay of a district court order, one of the elements of the test for granting or denying the stay is the losing party’s likelihood of success on appeal. In those situations, the trial court is really sticking its neck out: if it opines that its ruling is not likely to be reversed on appeal (as trial courts invariably do), and, in fact, its ruling is reversed on appeal, it was doubly wrong.

Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, the stakes are even higher, as trial courts sometimes must opine not only that their rulings dismissing a prisoner’s civil rights case are correct but that any appeal from that ruling is “not in good faith” and/or “frivolous.” A reversal in such a case would be the equivalent of the appellate court informing the district court, “You not only got it wrong, but you got it really, really wrong.”

Last week, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued just such a decision, in the case of Briscoe v. Klaus. In Briscoe, plaintiff Orland Briscoe brought a pro se civil rights case against several Pennsylvania prison officials. Following discovery, the district court scheduled a final pre-trial conference. The day before the conference, prison officials notified the court that Briscoe refused to be transported to the conference. The court issued an order warning Briscoe that his case could be dismissed for failure to prosecute if he did not show up at the conference, but prison officials informed the court that Briscoe still refused to be transported to the conference. The court dismissed Briscoe’s case, with prejudice, for failure to prosecute. It also stated, in its dismissal order, “Any appeal from this Order will be deemed frivolous, lacking in probable cause and not in good faith.”

Briscoe appealed, and the 3rd Circuit appointed counsel to represent Briscoe on appeal. In its decision last week, the court of appeals held that the district court erred in dismissing Briscoe’s case. Although the court undertook an analysis under its seminal “failure to prosecute” case, Poulis v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co., its reasoning boiled down to a very simple (and seemingly obvious) proposition: the district court should not have placed blind faith in the prison officials’ assertion that Briscoe refused to be transported to the pre-trial conference. Even aside from the fact that prison officials were defendants in Briscoe’s action, the severe sanction of dismissal for failure to prosecute could not be predicated on a bald assertion of a plaintiff’s dilatoriness. Rather, as the court held, “the District Court must provide the plaintiff with a full and fair opportunity to be heard regarding his failure to comply with the court’s orders” before the court can analyze the Poulis factors and dismiss for failure to prosecute.

Thus, the district court was not only wrong to dismiss Briscoe’s case, but it was further wrong to deem his (ultimately successful) appeal “frivolous, lacking in probable case and not in good faith.” District courts are affirmed on appeal much more often than they are reversed, but on occasion, such as in the Briscoe case, they not only get it wrong, they get it really, really wrong.

This posting is intended only to inform, not to provide legal advice; and readers should seek professional advice for specific applications of the information.

Bruce P. Merenstein
Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP
www.schnader.com

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