Mathena v. Haines

Decision Date26 June 2006
Docket NumberNo. 32769.,32769.
Citation633 S.E.2d 771
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court
PartiesDwight L. MATHENA, Roger Sullivan, Patrick W. Few, Jack Grimes, Jr., Kenneth Bennett, Jeffrey L. Wolfe, Kenneth Powell, Steven Cogar, Jason Lawson, and Eugene Blake, Petitioners Below Jason Lawson and Eugene Blake, Appellants v. William S. HAINES, Warden, Huttonsville Correctional Center, Respondent Below, Appellee.

Dissenting and Concurring Opinion of Justice Maynard June 28, 2006.

Syllabus by the Court

1. In reviewing challenges to the findings and conclusions of the circuit court in a habeas corpus action, we apply a three-prong standard of review. We review the final order and the ultimate disposition under an abuse of discretion standard; the underlying factual findings under a clearly erroneous standard; and questions of law are subject to a de novo review.

2. Under West Virginia Constitution art. III, § 17, prisoners have a Constitutional right to meaningful access to our courts subject to reasonable limitations imposed to protect courts from abuse.

3. "Under West Virginia Constitution art. III, § 17, the right of self-representation in civil proceedings is a fundamental right which cannot be arbitrarily or unreasonably denied." Syllabus Point 1, Blair v. Maynard, 174 W.Va. 247, 324 S.E.2d 391 (1984).

4. "The fundamental right of self-representation recognized in West Virginia Constitution art. III, § 17 may not be denied without a clear showing in the record that the pro se litigant is engaging in a course of conduct which demonstrates a clear intention to obstruct the administration of justice." Syllabus Point 1, Blair v. Maynard, 174 W.Va. 247, 324 S.E.2d 391 (1984).

5. Where a circuit court is faced with a potential abuse of process by a prisoner or a prisoner's threat to abuse the judicial process, the circuit court may, subject to the following, enter an order imposing reasonable limitations on the prisoner's right to access the court. Prior to the entry of such an order, the circuit court must provide the prisoner an opportunity to show cause why such a limitation should not be imposed. If the record demonstrates a clear intention to obstruct the administration of justice, the circuit court may impose limitations on the prisoner's right of access. Any order limiting a prisoner's access to the courts must be designed to preserve his right to adequate, effective, and meaningful access to our courts. The circuit court's order imposing such a limitation must include such findings of fact and conclusions of law adequate for meaningful appellate review.

Jason E. Huber, Forman & Huber, L.C., Charleston, for Appellants.

Darrell V. McGraw, Jr., Attorney General, John H. Boothroyd, Assistant Attorney General, Charleston, for Appellee.

STARCHER, J.:

Appellants Jason Lawson and Eugene Blake appeal from an order entered by the circuit court of Randolph County enjoining appellant Eugene Blake from filing any motions, letters, or communication to the circuit clerk or the circuit court unless such documents are signed by an attorney licensed to practice law in the State of West Virginia. Appellants Lawson and Blake include in their petition for appeal the issues which were included in the underlying conditions and medical care habeas corpus petition. Appellants Lawson and Blake also appeal the ruling of the circuit court relating to prison conditions and medical care issues raised in the underlying habeas corpus case. For the reasons set forth below, we reverse, in part, and affirm, in part.

I. Facts & Background

On January 11, 2001, Patrick W. Few, Dwight L. Mathena, Roger Sullivan, Jack Grimes, Kenneth Bennett, Jeffery L. Wolf, and Kenneth Powell filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the circuit court of Logan County. On the same date the circuit court of Logan County entered an order transferring the case from Logan County to Randolph County.1 On February 13, 2001, Dwight L. Mathena, Steve Cogar, Jason Lawson, Eugene Blake, and Patrick Few filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the circuit court of Mercer County. Also, on that same day the circuit court of Mercer County entered an order transferring the case from Mercer County to Randolph County. All petitioners were inmates in the Huttonsville Correctional Center.

On June 6, 2001, Eugene Blake was transferred from the Huttonsville Correctional Center to the Mount Olive Correctional Center.

On August 23, 2001, after the circuit court of Randolph County reviewed the two cases — from Logan and Mercer Counties, entered an order consolidating the cases.

On October 25, 2001, the circuit court of Randolph County entered an order stating that the petition for writ of habeas corpus was correctly filed pursuant to W.Va.Code, 53-4A-2 (1967), and that appropriate funds should be deducted from the petitioners' accounts to cover the cost of filing fees, pursuant to W.Va.Code, 25-1A-3 (2000).2

On February 13, 2002, respondent William S. Haines filed a Motion to Dismiss for Failure to Exhaust Administrative Remedies. Upon review of respondent's motion, the circuit court entered an order giving the petitioners thirty days to provided the court with proof that they had exhausted their administrative remedies as provided in W.Va.Code, 25-1A-2 (2000); otherwise, the cases would be dismissed. Only petitioners Cogar and Powell responded to the court.

On March 21, 2002, the circuit court ordered the dismissal of the claims of petitioners Mathena, Sullivan, Few, Grimes, Bennett, Wolf, Powell, and petitioners Jason Lawson and Eugene Blake, for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.3 On April 23, 2002, the circuit court ordered the dismissal of the claims of the remaining petitioner Cogar.

Petitioner Powell protested his dismissal, arguing that because of the nature of the issues in his complaint he did not have to exhaust administrative remedies; however, on review the circuit court, again, dismissed the claims of petitioner Powell on June 17, 2002.

All of the original petitioners' claims were dismissed by the circuit court, including the claims of Jason Lawson and Eugene Blake. Only Powell petitioned this Court to reverse the circuit court's dismissal; his petition for appeal was refused by this Court on July 18, 2003.

Some time later appellant Blake was transferred back to the Huttonsville Correctional Center. After his return Blake sent a letter dated August 10, 2004, to the Randolph County Circuit Clerk questioning the removal of $16.50 from his personal account for filing fees in the now-dismissed habeas corpus case. Appellant Blake included in his letter the following statement: "Hopefully, it will not be necessary for me to flood your office with additional motions and litigations concerning this case."4

In response to Blake's letter to the circuit clerk, the circuit court entered an order on August 26, 2004, enjoining appellant Blake from "filing any motions or sending any letters to the Clerk of this Court unless such documents are signed by an attorney licensed to practice law in the State of West Virginia."5

Subsequently, appellant Blake, in an apparent attempt not to violate the court's order by sending motions or letters to the circuit clerk's office, mailed subsequent filings directly to the circuit court.6 In response, the circuit court issued another order dated November 19, 2004, which expanded the earlier August 26 order, enjoining appellant Blake from ". . . any further communications with this court" unless such documents were signed by an attorney licensed to practice law in the State of West Virginia.7

In addition to the issues relating to appellant Blake's letters to the circuit clerk and the circuit court, both appellants Lawson and Blake include in their petition for appeal the issues which were included in the underlying conditions and medical care habeas corpus petition.

It is from the August 26 and November 19, 2004 circuit court orders that the appellants appeal.8

II. Standard of Review

In reviewing challenges to the findings and conclusions of the circuit court in a habeas corpus action, we apply a three-prong standard of review. We review the final order and the ultimate disposition under an abuse of discretion standard; the underlying factual findings under a clearly erroneous standard; and questions of law are subject to a de novo review. See State ex rel. Postelwaite v. Bechtold, 158 W.Va. 479, 212 S.E.2d 69 (1975) (findings of facts reviewed by "clearly wrong" standard); also see Phillips v. Fox, 193 W.Va. 657, 661, 458 S.E.2d 327, 331 (1995) (citing Burnside v. Burnside, 194 W.Va. 263, 460 S.E.2d 264 (1995)) (ultimate decision by abuse of discretion standard; factual findings by clearly erroneous standard; and questions of law subject to a de novo review).

III. Discussion

Appellants argue that the circuit court's orders enjoining appellant Blake from filing any motions, letters, or communication to the circuit clerk or the circuit court unless the motions, letters, or communications are signed by an attorney violates constitutional standards of guaranteed access to courts and procedural and substantive due process rights.

The right of access to our courts is one of the basic and fundamental principles of jurisprudence in West Virginia. We need look no further than our own State's Constitution for guidance. West Virginia Constitution art. III, § 17, states as follows:

The courts of this State shall be open, and every person, for an injury done to him, in his person, property or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law; and justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay.

That prisoners have a right to access to courts is axiomatic in our jurisprudence:

Prisoners have a constitutional right to adequate, effective, and meaningful access to the courts. This right stems from principles of due process and equal protection, as well as from state law. The right is...

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