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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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  1. This law is troubling in two respects: First, why wasn't the law reviewed "with the intention of getting all the facts surrounding the legislation and its actual impact on the marketplace" BEFORE it was passed and signed? Seems a bit backwards to me (even acknowledging that this is the Indiana state legislature we're talking about. Second, what is it with the laws in this state that seem to create artificial monopolies in various industries? Besides this one, the other law that comes to mind is the legislation that governed the granting of licenses to firms that wanted to set up craft distilleries. The licensing was limited to only those entities that were already in the craft beer brewing business. Republicans in this state talk a big game when it comes to being "business friendly". They're friendly alright . . . to certain businesses.

  2. Gretchen, Asia, Roberto, Tonia, Shannon, Cheri, Nicholas, Sondra, Carey, Laura ... my heart breaks for you, reaching out in a forum in which you are ignored by a professional suffering through both compassion fatigue and the love of filthy lucre. Most if not all of you seek a warm blooded Hoosier attorney unafraid to take on the government and plead that government officials have acted unconstitutionally to try to save a family and/or rescue children in need and/or press individual rights against the Leviathan state. I know an attorney from Kansas who has taken such cases across the country, arguing before half of the federal courts of appeal and presenting cases to the US S.Ct. numerous times seeking cert. Unfortunately, due to his zeal for the constitutional rights of peasants and willingness to confront powerful government bureaucrats seemingly violating the same ... he was denied character and fitness certification to join the Indiana bar, even after he was cleared to sit for, and passed, both the bar exam and ethics exam. And was even admitted to the Indiana federal bar! NOW KNOW THIS .... you will face headwinds and difficulties in locating a zealously motivated Hoosier attorney to face off against powerful government agents who violate the constitution, for those who do so tend to end up as marginalized as Paul Odgen, who was driven from the profession. So beware, many are mere expensive lapdogs, the kind of breed who will gladly take a large retainer, but then fail to press against the status quo and powers that be when told to heel to. It is a common belief among some in Indiana that those attorneys who truly fight the power and rigorously confront corruption often end up, actually or metaphorically, in real life or at least as to their careers, as dead as the late, great Gary Welch. All of that said, I wish you the very best in finding a Hoosier attorney with a fighting spirit to press your rights as far as you can, for you do have rights against government actors, no matter what said actors may tell you otherwise. Attorneys outside the elitist camp are often better fighters that those owing the powers that be for their salaries, corner offices and end of year bonuses. So do not be afraid to retain a green horn or unconnected lawyer, many of them are fine men and woman who are yet untainted by the "unique" Hoosier system.

  3. I am not the John below. He is a journalist and talk show host who knows me through my years working in Kansas government. I did no ask John to post the note below ...

  4. "...not those committed in the heat of an argument." If I ever see a man physically abusing a woman or a child and I'm close enough to intercede I will not ask him why he is abusing her/him. I will give him a split second to cease his attack and put his hands in the air while I call the police. If he continues, I will still call the police but to report, "Man down with a gunshot wound,"instead.

  5. And so the therapeutic state is weaonized. How soon until those with ideologies opposing the elite are disarmed in the name of mental health? If it can start anywhere it can start in the hoosiers' slavishly politically correct capital city.

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