67 F.3d 1080 (3rd Cir. 1995), 95-1291, Deutsch v. United States

Docket Nº:95-1291.
Citation:67 F.3d 1080
Party Name:Melvin P. DEUTSCH, Appellant, v. UNITED STATES of America.
Case Date:October 12, 1995
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
 
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Page 1080

67 F.3d 1080 (3rd Cir. 1995)

Melvin P. DEUTSCH, Appellant,

v.

UNITED STATES of America.

No. 95-1291.

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

October 12, 1995

Aug. 9, 1995.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 1082

Melvin P. Deutsch, New York City, Appellant, pro se.

John N. Joseph, Office of United States Attorney, Philadelphia, PA, for Appellee.

Before: GREENBERG, NYGAARD and LEWIS, Circuit Judges.

OPINION OF THE COURT

NYGAARD, Circuit Judge.

Melvin P. Deutsch appeals from an order that dismissed his in forma pauperis complaint as "frivolous or malicious" within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1915(d) (1988); the district court determined that the relief Deutsch sought was a "trifle" and thus not worthy of adjudication. We will affirm, but for reasons other than those offered by the district court. We hold that a court may dismiss an in forma pauperis claim as frivolous if, after considering the contending equities, the court determines that the claim is: (1) of little or no weight, value, or importance; (2) not worthy of serious attention; or (3) trivial.

I.

Deutsch filed a motion to proceed in forma pauperis and a complaint, alleging that prison guards took his writing pens and never returned them. Deutsch also alleged that he had filed a tort claim with the federal government in September 1994, but that the government declined to offer a settlement because it found no evidence that his pens had been taken. Deutsch then filed this action, which the district court properly construed as a claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. Secs. 1346(b), 2671-2680. Deutsch requested $4.20 for his pens, plus litigation costs, attorney's fees, and interest.

The district court granted Deutsch leave to proceed in forma pauperis but dismissed the complaint under 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1915(d). The district court determined that the $120 filing fee paid by every non-indigent plaintiff has the practical effect of precluding insubstantial claims seeking solely monetary damages. It concluded that the in forma pauperis legislation was not intended to encourage indigent plaintiffs to assert claims that a non-indigent plaintiff would not. The district court was unable to conclude that the case was legally or factually frivolous, or that it was brought for a malicious purpose, but instead determined that under the doctrine of de minimis non curat lex, 1 plaintiff's claim, which is limited solely to monetary damages in the amount of $4.20, was encompassed by the phrase 'frivolous or malicious' as used in Sec. 1915(d). Accordingly, it dismissed the complaint.

Deutsch filed a notice of appeal and a motion for leave to appeal in forma pauperis. We notified the parties that we would consider summary action pursuant to Internal Operating Procedure 10.6. Deutsch did not file a summary action response. We will consider this appeal on the district court record and the United States Attorney's response. 2

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II.

(a) Jurisdiction

We have held that an order dismissing a complaint without prejudice is not final under 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1291, and thus not appealable. Borelli v. City of Reading, 532 F.2d 950, 951 (3d Cir.1976) (per curiam). In Borelli, we recognized that an exception to this jurisdictional rule exists if the plaintiff either cannot cure the defect that led to dismissal or elects to stand on the dismissed complaint. Id. at 951-52.

Here, the district court failed to specify whether the Sec. 1915(d) dismissal was with or without prejudice, and there is no indication in the opinion accompanying the dismissal order that the court expected Deutsch to file a curative complaint. Although the filing of a paid complaint has not been prejudiced, we will review the order appealed pursuant to Sec. 1291. The district court's order is in essence final, because an in forma pauperis plaintiff must be afforded appellate review of a determination that he is required to pay all or a portion of the court costs and filing fees to file a claim, either because he does not qualify for in forma pauperis status or because his complaint is frivolous. See Roberts v. United States Dist. Court, 339 U.S. 844, 845, 70 S.Ct. 954, 955, 94 L.Ed. 1326 (1950) (per curiam) (order denying leave to proceed in forma pauperis is final, collateral order that is appealable under Sec. 1291); see also Sinwell v. Shapp, 536 F.2d 15, 16 (3d Cir.1976).

Alternatively, if the plaintiff has expressed an intent to stand on the dismissed complaint, or if it appears that the plaintiff could do nothing to cure the complaint's defects, then the order is likewise appealable under Sec. 1291. Riley v. Simmons, 45 F.3d 764, 770 (3d Cir.1995); Presbytery of N.J. Orthodox Presbyterian Church v. Florio, 40 F.3d 1454, 1461-62 n. 6 (3d Cir.1994). Here, it appears that Deutsch could not cure the defect that led to dismissal because the relief he sought was determined to be too small an amount to survive Sec. 1915(d) scrutiny. Accordingly, we conclude the order is appealable under Sec. 1291.

(b) Standard of Review

We apply a deferential abuse of discretion standard when reviewing a district court's decision to dismiss an in forma pauperis complaint under Sec. 1915(d). Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 33, 112 S.Ct. 1728, 1733, 118 L.Ed.2d 340 (1992). However, even within this narrow scope of review, to the extent that the district court, in the course of its frivolousness determination, engaged in the choice, application, and interpretation of legal precepts, our review is plenary. See Louis W. Epstein Family Partnership v. Kmart Corp., 13 F.3d 762, 766 (3d Cir.1994) (citing Universal Minerals, Inc. v. C.A. Hughes & Co., 669 F.2d 98, 102 (3d Cir.1981)).

III.

The district court relied on the maxim de minimis non curat lex and concluded that Deutsch's complaint was "frivolous or malicious" within the meaning of Sec. 1915(d). The Supreme Court has recognized that "the venerable maxim de minimis non curat lex ... is part of the established background of legal principles against which all enactments are adopted, and which all enactments (absent contrary indication) are deemed to accept." Wisconsin Dep't of Revenue v. Wrigley, 505 U.S. 214, 231, 112 S.Ct. 2447, 2457-58, 120 L.Ed.2d 174 (1992). Given the importance of the maxim de minimis non curat lex in American jurisprudence, it is clear that the district court's reliance on that maxim was well-intended. We conclude, nonetheless, that the plain meaning of the term "frivolous" authorizes the dismissal of in forma pauperis claims that, like Deutsch's, are of little or no weight, value, or importance, not worthy of serious consideration, or trivial. A dismissal based upon the maxim de minimis non curat lex would encompass claims beyond the parameters of Sec. 1915(d), and is unnecessary to the determination that Deutsch's complaint should be dismissed. We will affirm on the narrower ground that the complaint was frivolous within the meaning of Sec. 1915(d). 3

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The in forma pauperis statute, 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1915, "is designed to ensure that indigent litigants have meaningful access to the federal courts." Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 324, 109 S.Ct. 1827, 1831, 104 L.Ed.2d 338 (1989) (emphasis added) (citing Adkins v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., 335 U.S. 331, 342-43, 69 S.Ct. 85, 90-91, 93 L.Ed. 43 (1948)). Specifically, Congress enacted the in forma pauperis statute to ensure that administrative court costs and filing fees, both of which must be paid by everyone else who files a lawsuit, would not prevent indigent persons from pursuing meaningful litigation. Denton, 504 U.S. at 31, 112 S.Ct. at 1732; Jones v. Zimmerman, 752 F.2d 76, 78-79 (3d Cir.1985). To that end, Sec. 1915(a) provides, in pertinent part:

Any court of the United States may authorize the commencement, prosecution or defense of any suit, action or proceeding, civil or criminal, or appeal therein, without prepayment of fees and costs or security therefor, by a person who makes affidavit that he is unable to pay such costs or give security therefor.

See also Coppedge v. United States, 369 U.S. 438, 441, 82 S.Ct. 917, 919, 8 L.Ed.2d 21 (1962).

Congress was also concerned, however, that indigent persons could abuse this cost-free access to the federal courts. Denton, 504 U.S. at 31, 112 S.Ct. at 1732; Neitzke, 490 U.S. at 324, 109 S.Ct. at 1831. "When Congress opened the door to in forma pauperis petitions, it was concerned that the removal of the cost barrier might result in a tidalwave [sic] of frivolous or malicious motions filed by persons who gave no pause before crossing the threshold of the courthouse door." McTeague v. Sosnowski, 617 F.2d 1016, 1019 (3d Cir.1980). Thus, Congress sought to empower the courts to dismiss the abusive filings 4 that could result from the absence of a cost barrier by including Sec. 1915(d), which authorizes a court to dismiss an in forma pauperis complaint "if satisfied that the action is frivolous or malicious." See Denton, 504 U.S. at 31, 112 S.Ct. at 1733.

As the in forma pauperis legislation, which was first enacted in 1892, begins its second century, it is clear that Congress' use of the term "frivolous" in Sec. 1915(d) has left the federal courts with an imprecise standard for determining whether an in forma pauperis complaint abuses the federal legal system. Indeed, the Supreme Court has found that

the brevity of Sec. 1915(d) and the generality of its terms have left the judiciary with the not inconsiderable task of fashioning the procedures by which the statute operates and of giving content to Sec. 1915(d)'s indefinite adjectives. Articulating the proper contours of the Sec. 1915(d) term 'frivolous,' which neither the statute nor the accompanying congressional...

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