COA reinstates case alleging Crawford County clerk withheld public records

A Crawford County woman claiming the local court clerk illegally denied her access to public records can proceed with her claim, though she won’t receive appointed counsel, the Indiana Court of Appeals has ruled.

In October 2020, Rebekah Atkins filed a complaint alleging the Crawford County clerk was creating fake court records pertaining to Atkins’ identity and, along with the clerk’s office and its employees, was denying Atkins access to records she claimed belonged to her. Atkins raised claims of perjury, intimidation and violations of the Access to Public Records Act.

Atkins made 16 filings regarding her complaint, including a motion to proceed in forma pauperis and a motion for appointed counsel, both of which were denied. The appellee-defendants then moved to dismiss, which the Crawford Circuit Court granted.

But the Indiana Court of Appeals reinstated the litigation, with Judge Elizabeth Tavitas writing Tuesday that “Atkins’ complaint was sufficient to ‘put a reasonable person on notice’ as to why Atkins filed her claims.”

“Appellees argued in their motion to dismiss that Atkins’ complaint should have been dismissed because of her failure to pay the filing fee. That argument was premature under Indiana Trial Rule 12, which requires all but a handful of issues to be asserted via responsive pleading, as opposed to a motion, at such an early stage of a civil proceeding,” Tavitas wrote. “Regardless, based on our reading of the order striking pleadings from the record — filed after the order dismissing Atkins’ complaint — the trial court seems to have dismissed Atkins’ complaint exclusively on the ground that it failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.”

Further, “… Atkins’ claims, though beset with irrelevant text and interjections, are nevertheless discernible,” Tavitas wrote.

“… We do not close the courthouse doors at this early stage to any litigant merely because we are skeptical about her chances of success. At this fledgling juncture, we must accept the facts alleged in Atkins’ complaint as true. Thus, as a matter of basic civil procedure, dismissal was a premature, improper vehicle for the disposition of Atkins’ claims.”

The appellate panel also reversed the denial of Atkins’ motion to waive the filing fee, with Tavitas writing that the panel wanted to “fill (the) gap” in jurisprudence on waiver of filing fees at the trial court level. The panel said the holding in Campbell v. Criterion Grp., 605 N.E.2d 150 (Ind. 1992) – which found that Indiana courts are “constrained to give a liberal construction to our statutes in favor of the pauper …” – applies equally to trial and appellate cases.

In this case, however, the panel added that it had a “scant record” to review on the issue of Atkins’ indigency, because the trial court neither held a hearing on the motion to waive the fee nor explained its reasons for denying that motion.

“If the trial court had any doubt about Atkins’ indigency, the trial court could have exercised several options,” she wrote. “A trial court may waive a filing fee, and, upon a later discovery that the litigant has the means to pay, order reimbursement of the waived fee; or a trial court may hold a hearing to examine the litigant’s potential indigency.

“Either method will safeguard the longstanding, fundamental obligation to allow access to the courts by all, regardless of one’s financial standing. By any standard, Atkins proved her indigency, and the trial court abused its discretion by denying Atkins’ motion to proceed in forma pauperis and to waive court filing fees. Atkins is entitled to proceed with her suit without paying the filing fee,” the panel held.

However, the COA affirmed the denial of Atkins’ motion for appointed counsel, finding no “’extraordinary circumstances’ inviting such an appointment … .” Also, “the trial court was permitted to deny the request on the grounds that Atkins is unlikely to prevail on her claims.”

Finally, the panel rejected Atkins’ claim that the trial court was biased and had violated the Code of Judicial Conduct.

“We find that the record is without evidence sufficient to overcome the presumption that the trial court judge was unbiased and unprejudiced,” Tavitas wrote for the unanimous panel. “Adverse rulings on Atkins’ multiple motions, without more, are insufficient to demonstrate bias.”

The case is Rebekah A. Atkins v. Crawford County Clerk’s Office, Elected Clerk, Lisa Stephenson Holzbog, Chief Deputy Clerk-Lisa Ward, Deputy Clerk Charla Dawn Wright, and Deputy Clerk Vicki McMullen, 20A-MI-2160.

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