COA allows prisoner’s negligence complaint to proceed

The Court of Appeals of Indiana is allowing a negligence complaint by a prisoner against the Indiana Department of Correction to proceed, partially reversing a dismissal by the Perry Circuit Court.

This past March, Tracey Wheeler, an offender confined at the Branchville Correctional Facility, filed a complaint against the DOC seeking monetary damages. Wheeler alleged he filed a grievance against a DOC employee who then retaliated against him by searching his cell and wrongfully confiscating a partial bag of coffee and a partial bag of tortilla chips.

In support of his complaint, Wheeler alleged he’d attempted to resolve the issue informally with the employee performing the search at the time the search occurred. Wheeler further alleged and attached documents to his complaint showing he had pursed a formal grievance, which was denied, and a facility-level appeal, which was also denied.

According to Wheeler’s complaint, he was informed by the prison’s grievance specialist that his property was to be returned to him, but that due to staffing shortages causing a delay in retrieving the tortilla chips and coffee from the evidence locker, his items were probably no longer edible and his best option was to file a tort claim.

At the end of May, DOC filed a motion to screen, stating Wheeler was “an abusive filer in Indiana courts” who had three previous lawsuits dismissed in 2020 alone. That fact, it argued, did not mandate dismissal of the instant lawsuit but gave “greater reason to doubt the allegations and to screen [Wheeler’s] [c]omplaint prior to any further action in this case.”

The DOC contended that, insofar as the allegations of Wheeler’s complaint stated claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that it was liable under a theory of respondeat superior, those claims were not legally cognizable. The DOC also argued Wheeler had failed to state a claim because he had averred in his complaint that he “was ‘retaliated’ against without any mention of how any alleged action against him constituted negligence.”

In June, the trial court entered its order dismissing Wheeler’s complaint with prejudice pursuant to Indiana Code § 34-58-1-2.

The COA framed the issues on appeal as whether Wheeler sufficiently alleged a tort in his complaint and whether his failure to show in his complaint that he had exhausted his administrative remedies prior to filing the suit subjected his complaint to dismissal under the Screening Statute.

The appellate court ruled Wheeler’s complaint adequately stated a cause for negligence, and the DOC appeared to concede as much by abandoning their challenge to the sufficiency of Wheeler’s negligence allegations on appeal. Thus, the COA reversed and remanded, allowing the complaint to proceed.

On the issue of exhaustion of remedies, the COA pointed to Alkhalidi v. Indiana Department of Correction, 42 N.E.3d 562 (Ind. Ct. App. 2015), and Pfenning v. Lineman, 947 N.E.2d 392, 398 (Ind. 2011).

“While the instant action is one sounding in negligence, not a replevin action in small claims court, and this is an appeal from a dismissal pursuant to the Screening Statute rather than an appeal from a judgment on the evidence, we believe that Alkhalidi and its reasoning apply,” COA Judge Patricia Riley opined for the court. “A failure to exhaust administrative remedies is not an element of a claim for negligence.

“… Therefore, Wheeler was not required to plead exhaustion of remedies in order to state a claim for relief, and his negligence claim was not subject to dismissal on that basis.”

The COA affirmed the dismissal of any other putative claims made by Wheeler.

“Because we partially reverse the trial court’s dismissal and remand for further proceedings, we do not address Wheeler’s claim that the trial court failed to sufficiently explain its reasoning pursuant to Indiana Code section 34-58-1-3,” the court added in a footnote. “We also observe that we are without authority to grant Wheeler’s request that we order compensation for him directly, and we decline his request to assess sanctions based on his allegation that the DOC acted in bad faith in filing its motion to screen and its appellate brief.”

The case is Tracey Wheeler v. State of Indiana and Indiana Department of Corrections, 21A-MI-1175.

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