ILNews

Court tackles scope of 'frivolous'

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The Indiana Court of Appeals today used an inmate's appeal of the dismissal of his complaint to address the scope of the word "frivolous" in Indiana's Frivolous Claim Law. And even though this inmate has filed dozens of law suits since being incarcerated, it doesn't mean his suits can be automatically deemed frivolous by the trial courts.

In Eric D. Smith v. Jeff Wrigley and David L. Ittenbach, No. 33A05-0903-CV-156, New Castle Correctional Facility inmate Eric Smith appealed the dismissal of his 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 suit against Jeff Wrigley, the superintendent, and David Ittenbach, the grievance executive assistant to the facility. Smith's suit alleges deprivation of his Eighth Amendment rights because inmates have no control over the temperature of the water during showers and he has to wear ankle shackles when he's taken out of his cell. He claimed the prison staff makes the water too hot or too cold to dissuade inmates from showering and possibly injuring them with the hot water; he said wearing the ankle shackles cause severe pain because he had broken his ankle.

The trial court reviewed his suit under the state's Frivolous Claim Law and dismissed it for being frivolous because it was made primarily to harass a person and lacked an arguable basis in both law and fact. But the Court of Appeals reversed, finding the complaint wasn't baseless on its face.

In order to determine the scope of "frivolous" in Indiana's law, the appellate court turned to the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act and Supreme Court of the United States rulings in Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989), and Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25 (1992). Because the state's law tracks the federal statutes, as well as SCOTUS' interpretation of "frivolous" in those statutes, the Court of Appeals adopted that interpretation, wrote Judge Patricia Riley.

In Neitzke, the U.S. Supreme Court justices distinguished between claims that are legally frivolous and those that are factually frivolous: a legally frivolous claim is one of infringement of a legal interest which clearly doesn't exist, and a factual claim is one describing fantastic or delusional scenarios. Expanding on that in Denton, the SCOTUS ruled dismissal for factual frivolousness isn't proper simply because the court finds the plaintiff's allegations unlikely.

Smith's contentions that the scalding water temperatures or pain caused by the ankle shackles violate his Eighth Amendment rights is a valid legal theory and conclusion, even if it's eventually determined the facts he alleges are false, wrote Judge Riley. In addition, his claims don't meet the standard for factual frivolousness.

"While Smith's complaint might turn out to be baseless, it is not clearly baseless on its face. To borrow from one current United States Supreme Court justice, Smith's complaint does not include claims about little green men, his recent trip to Pluto, or his experiences in time travel," she wrote.

The appellate court acknowledged Smith's penchant for filing claims and noted he has more than 50 pending on the docket and there's a good chance he's filed countless more that just haven't made it to the Court of Appeals yet. Judge Riley mentioned former suits filed by Smith that were frivolous, such as his claim he has an inalienable right to Rogaine hair product.

Judge Riley also wrote the court has no doubt Smith files most of his complaints to primarily harass the defendants or the courts, which fits one of the definitions of Indiana's Frivolous Claim Law. And even though there is little reason to believe anything he says or writes, in cases such as this one, the courts cannot resolve his claims based on speculation.

"Put bluntly, we cannot endorse a system in which Eric Smith's complaints are dismissed merely because they were filed by Eric Smith. This would be the equivalent of shutting the courthouse doors altogether," she wrote. "Indiana's Three Strikes Law did the same thing to Smith, and last year, our supreme court found that law to be unconstitutional."

The appellate court also clarified their holding today isn't that all prisoner complaints must be allowed to proceed past the pleading phase, and ones that are facially frivolous - like requesting Rogaine - can be summarily dismissed at the screening stage. It also encouraged the General Assembly to consider some of the steps taken by other states in attempt to lessen the burden of meritless offender litigation.

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  2. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  3. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  4. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

  5. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

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