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...

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