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The Spears Hearing: An Under-Utilized Filter for Frivolous Prisoner Lawsuits

In a previous post, I noted the recent twentieth anniversary of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) – highlighting the intent behind the Act (to curb frivolous inmate lawsuits) and the Act’s effect (a sixty percent drop in annual prisoner filings). But despite the PLRA, federal dockets remain overburdened by inmate suits. In fact, here in the Fifth Circuit, prisoner appeals still make up over forty percent of the court’s caseload – with only a tenth of those appeals ultimately decided in favor of the prisoner plaintiff.

An unsuccessful appeal does not necessarily imply frivolity. But if Congress intended, through the PLRA, to provide courts with mechanisms to separate the wheat from the chaff, then an increased success rate would be expected among the suits that survive the winnowing process. With such a low success rate for prisoner appeals, there seems to be some chaff remaining.

One under- (and sometimes un-) utilized tool available to the judiciary to relieve its dockets of frivolous prisoner claims, while preserving meritorious claims, is the Spears hearing.

In the 1985 case Spears v. McCotter, the Fifth Circuit implemented a pre-suit hearing for in forma pauperis inmates to allow the court to determine whether a claim is legally frivolous under 28 U.S.C.A. § 1915, i.e., “if it lacks an arguable basis in law,” “if the facts alleged are clearly baseless,” or “when the facts alleged rise to the level of irrational or wholly incredible.” The Spears hearing is “in the nature of a motion for more definite statement,” and district courts are given “especially broad discretion” here – encouraged to use § 1915 procedures “at the earliest possible stages” of litigation. The hearing is to serve as a “barrier to frivolous suits” for “not only the inarguable legal conclusion, but also the fanciful factual allegation.” Another function is to filter actions which are “subject to an obvious meritorious defense, such as a peremptory time bar.”

Still, prisoner suits proceed to litigation only to then be dismissed as frivolous.[1]  Some actions survive a Spears hearing to get there; others are never even subjected to a Spears hearing. This suggests the Spears hearing is not being effectively employed.

To identify and eliminate frivolous claims before they end up in lengthy, expensive litigation, the Spears hearing must be utilized to its full extent. For example, the court may require defendants to provide documentation and other evidence in advance of a Spears hearing to “construct an administrative record to assist the court in determining whether the complaint is frivolous.” The court may even invite defendants and defense counsel to participate in the Spears hearing.[2] Such defendant involvement allows judges to hear defense testimony and/or limited cross-examination, resulting in a more thorough claim examination and likely a more accurate finding of merit or lack thereof. Courts also have discretion to hold multiple Spears hearings where appropriate to further examine inmate allegations.[3] This too allows a more in-depth review of claims and, combined with appropriate judicial oversight to ensure the Spears hearing does not go beyond its intended purposes,[4] would help to reduce the number of frivolous prisoner cases.

As the Supreme Court has stated, “Depriving someone of a frivolous claim . . . deprives him of nothing at all, except perhaps the punishment of the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11 sanctions.” Increased utilization of the Spears hearing is one way to prevent recreational litigator inmates from wasting valuable judicial resources. Others will be discussed in subsequent posts.

By Anna Little Morris

© 2015 Barrett Photography: Michael & Dianne ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

© 2015 Barrett Photography: Michael & Dianne ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

[1] E.g., Shaw v. Tucker, 2010 WL 5817660 (N.D. Tex. July 2, 2010); Akin v. Cardenas, 2014 WL 292387 (N.D. Tex. Jan. 27, 2014); Tyson v. LeBlanc, 2010 WL 5375955 (E.D. La. Nov. 19, 2010); Ellis v. Crowe, 2010 WL 724158 (E.D. La. Feb. 19, 2010); Kakosch v. Siemens Corp., 2015 WL 404113 (E.D. La. Jan. 28, 2015).

[2] Spears hearings may also be held before defendants are even served – quite appropriate when claims are “fantastic or delusional scenarios which are clearly irrational and incredible,” as in Pardue v. FBI, where an inmate sued the FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, the Mexican Mafia, Bank of America, “the state courts,” the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department medical staff, a college police department, and others, alleging that these parties harassed and forced him to take medications against his will. 2007 WL 983982 (N.D. Tex. March 30, 2007).

[3] Courts do not often call for more than one Spears hearing, but did so in Jackson v. City of Beaumont Police Dep’t, 958 F.2d 616 (5th Cir. 1992); Wilson v. Stachura, 2012 WL 4602756 (S.D. Miss. Oct. 1, 2012); and Flores v. TDCJ Transitorial Planning Dep’t Southern Region Inst. Division, 2015 WL 10436114 (S.D. Tex. Nov. 17, 2015).

[4] A trial court’s finding of frivolity is subject to an abuse of discretion review standard. Young v. Saint, 990 F.2d 627, 627 (5th Cir. 1993). The Fifth Circuit has reversed a trial court’s finding of frivolity, for example, when the lower court made an “improper credibility determination” which is “beyond the scope of Spears hearing.” Williams v. Luna, 909 F.2d 121, 124 (1990). See also Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S.25, 33-34 (1992) (“In reviewing a § 1915(d) dismissal for abuse of discretion, it would be appropriate for the Court of Appeals to consider, among other things, whether the plaintiff was proceeding pro se; whether the court inappropriately resolved genuine issues of disputed fact; whether the court applied erroneous legal conclusions; whether the court has provided a statement explaining the dismissal that facilitates ‘intelligent appellate review’; and whether the dismissal was with or without prejudice.”) (internal citations omitted).