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Hancock v. Cape

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

November 17, 2017

YASUND Q. HANCOCK, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
BRENT CAPE, Defendant-Appellee.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia D.C. Docket No. 2:14-cv-00202-WCO

          Before TJOFLAT, JULIE CARNES, and MELLOY, [*] Circuit Judges.

          OFLAT, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         This case involves questions of state-law interpretation and the interplay between Georgia's renewal statute, Georgia's general in forma pauperis statute, and the federal rules governing in forma pauperis status. We conclude that the District Court resolved those questions correctly and affirm its decision.

         I.

         On March 23, 2011, Yasund Hancock, an inmate at the Hall County Detention Center in Gainesville, Georgia, proceeding pro se, sued Brent Cape, a Peace Officer with the Hall County Sheriff's Department, and another corrections official under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. Hancock's claim alleged that in October 2010, Cape repeatedly struck him with a metal flashlight and sprayed him with pepper spray while yelling racial slurs at him. As an indigent inmate, Hancock applied to proceed in forma pauperis ("IFP") under the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), 28 U.S.C. § 1915. A Magistrate Judge granted his application, and, pursuant to the PLRA, the filing fee required to initiate the suit began to be withdrawn from his inmate account in installments. On June 3, 2011, Hancock was released from custody. Shortly thereafter, he reapplied to proceed IFP. The Magistrate Judge granted his application and informed Hancock that he did not have to pay an additional filing fee after his release to proceed.

         In 2013, as the case advanced, Hancock hired an attorney. The day after Hancock retained counsel, Cape moved to dismiss Hancock's case on two grounds: first, that Hancock failed to exhaust his administrative remedies; and second, that his claim was barred by the Supreme Court's holding in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 114 S.Ct. 2364 (1994). On March 5, 2014, the District Court granted Cape's motion over Hancock's objection and dismissed the complaint without prejudice on the ground that Hancock failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. Hancock never paid the remainder of the filing fee he owed to the District Court.

         Thereafter, Hancock filed notice of appeal and applied to the District Court for leave to proceed IFP. The District Court denied his application on the basis that his appeal was not taken in good faith. Hancock then sought IFP status in this Court, and we denied his motion, finding that his appeal was frivolous. Thereafter, Hancock failed to pay this Court's filing fee, so his appeal was dismissed for failure to prosecute.

         On September 5, 2014, Hancock returned to the District Court and filed his complaint anew. By that time, Georgia's two-year statute of limitations on personal injury actions, which governed Hancock's claim, had run.[1] However, Georgia's "renewal statute, " O.C.G.A. § 9-2-61, allows a plaintiff, under certain circumstances, to renew an action that was previously dismissed, even if the statute of limitations would bar an initial claim, as long as the dismissal was not on the merits and the second suit is brought within six months of the termination of the previous lawsuit. See infra Part II.A.

         At the time he filed his renewed § 1983 suit, Hancock paid in full the $400 filing fee required to initiate that suit. He made no mention of the outstanding fees he owed to the District Court for filing his initial suit and to this Court for filing his appeal. After process was served, Cape moved to dismiss Hancock's renewed complaint, repeating his argument that Hancock's claim was barred by Heck and asserting that the renewal statute did not apply to Hancock's claim. While considering Cape's motion, the District Court discovered on its own initiative a potentially dispositive issue: Georgia's renewal statute conditions a plaintiff's renewal of a previously dismissed suit on "payment of costs in the original action." O.C.G.A. § 9-2-61. Upon discovery of this issue and the observation that Hancock still owed the costs incurred during his initial suit and appeal, the District Court ordered the parties to show cause why Hancock's complaint should not be dismissed for failure to pay the costs of his original action. Three days later, and two days before the District Court ruled on the matter, Hancock responded that the District Court's grant of IFP status in his initial suit, along with documents he received from the Eleventh Circuit pertaining to the denial of his pauper's application, led him to believe that he did not owe any costs stemming from that suit. That same day, Hancock applied to proceed with his renewed suit IFP.

         After considering the parties' responses to the show-cause order, the District Court concluded that its initial intuition was correct, denied Hancock's IFP application, and dismissed Hancock's complaint for failure to pay the costs of his first suit. Hancock moved the District Court to reconsider its decision, the District Court refused to do so, and Hancock timely appealed.

         II.

         Hancock recommenced his suit more than two years after the alleged incident giving rise to his claim occurred. But he filed his renewed suit within six months of filing his initial suit. Thus, if Georgia's renewal statute is inapplicable to Hancock's renewed suit, the case is barred by the statute of limitations. If the renewal statute applies, it isn't.

         Generally, the renewal statute does not apply unless a plaintiff first pays the costs he incurred in his initial suit, and it is undisputed that Hancock did not pay the costs he owed from his first suit. But Hancock argues that his failure to pay those costs falls under an exception to the general rule, and that he should nevertheless be allowed to revive his claim pursuant to the renewal statute. He advances two arguments in support of this proposition. First, he argues that the good-faith exception to the renewal statute's cost-payment requirement, which the Georgia Court of Appeals has recognized, should apply to him. Second, he argues that Georgia law's generous treatment of paupers, as compared to federal law's treatment of them, counsels us ...


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