United States Court of Appeals
It was improper to dismiss a suit because the plaintiff failed to pay a sanction when the only reason for the failure is that he doesn’t have the money to pay it.
“The plaintiff’s offer to pay off the sanctions debt at a rate of $25 a month, though it may well have been the best offer he could make given his financial situation, was, from the standpoint of compliance with the district court’s order, risible; for at that rate it would have taken him more than 30 years to complete payment. He was given 30 days; he sought 11,000. But the court was mistaken to term the plaintiff’s failure to pay ‘contumacious.’ No one doubts that he can’t afford to pay the monetary sanction. Inability to pay a fine has been held not to justify the alternative of imprisonment, Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660, 672-73 (1983); Tate v. Short, 401 U.S. 395, 397-98 (1971); United States v. Seacott, 15 F.3d 1380, 1389 (7th Cir. 1994), and a plaintiff’s inability to pay a monetary sanction imposed in a civil lawsuit should not automatically justify the alternative sanction of dismissal. E.g., English v. Cowell, 969 F.2d 465, 473 (7th Cir. 1992); Selletti v. Carey, 173 F.3d 104, 111 (2d Cir. 1999); Moon v. Newsome, 863 F.2d 835, 837-38 (11th Cir. 1989).”
Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Andersen, J., Posner, J.