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COA reverses one dismissal of inmate's suit

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The New Castle inmate with a history of filing frivolous lawsuits got a minor victory in the Indiana Court of Appeals today. The judges reinstated his complaint against the only person who presided over the inmate's disciplinary hearing for a Department of Correction rule violation for filing a frivolous claim.

In Eric D. Smith v. Sgt. Thompson, DHB, and Barry Holder,  No. 33A01-0905-CV-214, Smith appealed pro se the dismissal of his complaint against Thompson, whose first name isn't listed in the suit, and Barry Holder as frivolous pursuant to Indiana Code Section 34-58-1-2. Smith's complaint in the instant case stems from a disciplinary hearing that was conducted with Thompson serving as the sole hearing member. After a trial court dismissed a Feb. 13, 2009, complaint as frivolous, the DOC charged Smith with a disciplinary rule violation for filing a frivolous claim.

Thompson found Smith guilty; Holder, acting for DOC Superintendent Jeff Wrigley, denied the appeal. Smith filed his complaint March 24, alleging Thompson and Holder denied his due process rights under the 14th Amendment. He claimed Thompson violated DOC policy by conducting the disciplinary hearing alone and that Thompson excluded Smith from the hearing and continued the hearing in his absence. Smith alleged Holder was indifferent to his claims on appeal. The trial court dismissed Smith's March 24 complaint as frivolous.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the complaint against Holder because Smith failed to make factual allegations of a depravation of due process, except that Holder was indifferent to his appeal. This is an attempt to appeal a DOC disciplinary action, which state courts can't review, wrote Judge Margret Robb.

Smith's claim against Thompson shouldn't have been dismissed, the appellate court determined. Because the trial court dismissed his complaint ab initio, the state never filed an answer nor did it take part in this appeal. Absent information to the contrary, the appellate court has to accept as true the well-pleaded facts in Smith's complaint, wrote the judge.

"[A]s a result, we must assume that the hearing was conducted in violation of DOC policy. In addition, Smith's exclusion from the hearing, if true, could constitute a violation of his basic due process rights," she wrote.

The Court of Appeals agreed with another panel of the court that given Smith's penchant for litigation, there's a strong possibility his claims in the instant case are false or exaggerations.

"While Smith's complaint may turn out to be baseless, it is not clearly baseless on its face, and it is sufficient to survive the screening of the statute with respect to Thompson," she wrote.

The case is remanded for further proceedings in light of the opinion.

The same appellate panel in a separate case also affirmed the dismissal of a separate complaint filed by Smith against Thompson; Wrigley; Jill Matthews, a former employee at the New Castle facility mailroom; and David Ittenbach, a current employee of the facility, ruling the trial court didn't err in dismissing his case as frivolous.

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