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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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