Appellate Clinic’s victory in LaFountain v. Harry corrects Sixth Circuit precedent

Jun 11, 2013

The Vanderbilt Appellate Litigation Clinic established an important precedent through its representation of a Michigan prisoner in LaFountain v. Harry: That people too poor to pay the $400 filing fee in federal court have the same procedural rights as those who can pay.

Four members of the Class of 2013—Hunter Branstetter, James P. Danly, Tracy Hancock and Seamus Kelly—participated in the Appellate Clinic’s representation of Wayne Earl LaFountain. LaFountain filed a case in the Eastern District of Michigan alleging that prison officials retaliated against him after he filed administrative grievances and successful lawsuits challenging prison conditions. When the district court dismissed LaFountain’s case with prejudice for failure to state a claim, he appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

According to Alistair Newbern, who teaches the Appellate Clinic, LaFountain’s victory in the case is significant in that it reversed a Sixth Circuit rule established in McGore v. Wrigglesworth, a case decided in 1997 that addressed the rights of indigent people to file federal cases in light of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996.

“The PLRA instituted new procedural rules for how both prisoners and poor people who are not in jail bring federal cases in forma pauperis—without paying the filing fee,” Newbern said. “In McGore, the Sixth Circuit held that if you’re indigent and file a complaint, you can’t amend it to avoid having your case dismissed. That’s a right everybody else has under Rule 15 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Basically, the McGore decision meant that if you’re too poor to pay the filing fee, you don’t get the same procedural rights as everyone else.”

Over the next 10 years, similar cases in the 11 other federal circuits were all decided in favor of allowing indigent clients the same rights to amend federal cases as all other litigants. In 2007, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in Jones v. Bock that clearly stated that if the Prison Litigation Reform Act did not specifically change a rule of procedure, normal procedure applied. The Appellate Clinic team challenged the dismissal of LaFountain’s case by arguing that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Jones invalidated the Sixth Circuit precedent established by McGore. “Normally, the Court of Appeals can’t revisit a prior decision without the whole court sitting en banc,” Newbern said. “But when an intervening Supreme Court decision calls the prior decision into doubt, the Court may reverse itself.”

Shortly after the clinic team filed in LaFountain’s case, the issue made its way to the United States Supreme Court. “A few months after we filed our case in LaFountain, another attorney petitioned for certiorari on behalf of an indigent client who had not been allowed to amend his complaint under McGore,” Newbern said. “The Supreme Court granted cert in that case, Burnside v. Walters, and the case was scheduled to be heard in the October 2013 term.”

Shortly after Burnside appeared on the Supreme Court’s docket, the Sixth Circuit decided LaFountain, holding that McGore was no longer good law. The Supreme Court then remanded Burnside to the Sixth Circuit in light of the Vanderbilt Appellate Clinic’s victory on behalf of LaFountain. “Because the Sixth Circuit’s decision…in LaFountain was a published one, it is now the law of the Sixth Circuit—and means that Burnside would now prevail there,” commented Amy Howe in SCOTUSblog. “LaFountain was great work by the Vanderbilt Law School’s Appellate Litigation Clinic, spearheaded by Alistair Newbern there.”

According to Newbern, the LaFountain case was a year-long team effort. Kelly, Hancock and Danly briefed the case, and in March 2013, Kelly argued it to the Sixth Circuit with Branstetter sitting second chair. “Seamus and Hunter spent a snowy spring break in Cincinnati, preparing for argument,” Newbern said. “Happily, their hard work really paid off.”

Kelly found working on the case “the most challenging and rewarding experience of my life. Trying to squeeze three meaty legal arguments into a 13-minute argument and 2-minute rebuttal knowing that an actual person’s access to the courts was at stake was daunting,” he said. “I practiced the argument three times a week for two months while Professor Newbern and Hunter peppered me with questions, and each night I’d watch a video of the argument and figure out how to answer their questions more succinctly.”

“The amount of work that went in to making Mr. LaFountain’s appeal, from briefing to preparing the argument, was an amazingly educational and humbling experience that has given me a tremendous amount of respect for litigators,” Kelly continued. “I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute to winning Mr. LaFountain’s appeal on the merits and restoring the rights of indigent people throughout the Sixth Circuit.”