Smith v. Indiana Dept. of Correction

Decision Date09 April 2008
Docket NumberNo. 49S02-0804-CV-166.,49S02-0804-CV-166.
PartiesEric D. SMITH, Appellant (Plaintiff below), v. INDIANA DEPARTMENT OF CORECTION, et al., Appellees (Defendants below).
CourtIndiana Supreme Court

Eric D. Smith, Westville, IN, Appellant pro se.

Susan K. Carpenter, Public Defender of Indiana, Gregory L. Lewis, J. Michael Sauer, Deputy Public Defenders, Indianapolis, IN, Attorney for Amicus Curiae Public Defender of Indiana.

Steve Carter, Attorney General of Indiana, Frances H. Barrow, Deputy Attorney General, Indianapolis, IN, Attorneys for Appellee.

J. Scott Callahan, Bedford, Stephen J. Johnson, Indianapolis, IN, Attorneys for Amicus Curiae Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.

On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 49A02-0601-CV-58

BOEHM, Justice.

In 2004, Indiana enacted a "Three Strikes Law" providing that an inmate "may not file a complaint" if the inmate has filed three prior lawsuits that were dismissed as frivolous under the "Frivolous Claim Law." Other jurisdictions seek to curb litigant abuses by imposing conditions on lawsuits by "frequent filers." Indiana's Three Strikes Law goes further and purports to close the courthouse door altogether. We hold that this legislation violates the Open Courts Clause of the Indiana Constitution.

Facts and Procedural History

In 2005, Eric D. Smith was an inmate at the Maximum Control Facility at Westville Correctional Facility in LaPorte County, Indiana. On July 23, Smith created a makeshift hammock by tying a bed sheet to some water pipes, climbed into the hammock, and refused to come down until Department of Correction employees provided him with copies of a brief he planned to file before the Indiana Court of Appeals. Officers used chemical spray and pepper balls to force Smith down.

On November 7, 2005, Smith filed a complaint in Marion Superior Court against the Indiana Department of Correction ("DOC"), the Maximum Control Facility, and various DOC employees, alleging that the method used to remove him from the hammock caused him injury and pain. He sought $300,000 in damages and injunctive and declaratory relief.

On December 15, 2005, the defendants moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that its filing was prohibited by the Three Strikes Law.1 The Marion Superior Court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss, finding that Smith's prior dismissed cases deprived it of subject matter jurisdiction over this claim.

Smith appealed pro se, challenging the Three Strikes Law as a violation of article I, section 12 of the Indiana Constitution. The Court of Appeals upheld the statute and affirmed the trial court. Smith v. Ind. Dep't of Corr., 853 N.E.2d 127, 129 (Ind.Ct. App.2006). We grant transfer today.

Standard of Review

A statute is presumed constitutional. Sims v. U.S. Fid. & Guar. Co., 782 N.E.2d 345, 349 (Ind.2003) (citing Boehm v. Town of St. John, 675 N.E.2d 318, 321 (Ind.1996)). "We do not presume that the General Assembly violated the constitution unless the unambiguous language of the statute so mandates." Id. A statute is nullified on constitutional grounds only where that result is "clearly rational and necessary." Id. (quoting Bd. of Comm'rs v. Kokomo City Plan Comm'n, 263 Ind. 282, 286, 330 N.E.2d 92, 95 (1975)).

Frivolous Claim Law and Three Strikes Law

Both the Frivolous Claim Law and the Three Strikes Law became effective on July 1, 2004, as a part of Public Law 80-2004, section 6, which was designed to screen and prevent abusive and prolific offender litigation in Indiana. See Smith v. Huckins, 850 N.E.2d 480, 483 (Ind.Ct. App.2006). The Frivolous Claim Law applies only to "offenders," defined for these purposes in Indiana Code section 34-6-2-89(b) as "a person who is committed to the department of correction or incarcerated in a jail." (West Supp.2007). The Frivolous Claim Law provides in pertinent part:

(a) A court shall review a complaint or petition filed by an offender and shall determine if the claim may proceed. A claim may not proceed if the court determines that the claim:

(1) is frivolous;

(2) is not a claim upon which relief may be granted; or

(3) seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from liability for such relief.

(b) A claim is frivolous under subsection (a)(1) if the claim:

(1) is made primarily to harass a person; or

(2) lacks an arguable basis either in:

(A) law; or

(B) fact.

Id. § 34-58-1-2.

The Three Strikes Law provides:

If an offender has filed at least three (3) civil actions in which a state court has dismissed the action or a claim under IC 34-58-1-2, the offender may not file a new complaint or petition unless a court determines that the offender is in immediate danger of serious bodily injury (as defined in IC 35-41-1-25).

Id. § 34-58-2-1.

Smith does not challenge the constitutionality of the Frivolous Claim Law but argues that the prohibition of subsequent litigation imposed by the Three Strikes Law violates the Open Courts Clause found in article I, section 12 of the Indiana Constitution.2 That clause provides that: "All courts shall be open; and every person, for injury done to him in his person, property, or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law. Justice shall be administered freely, and without purchase; completely, and without denial; speedily, and without delay." The Court of Appeals rejected Smith's claim. The Court of Appeals first found that there is no "fundamental" right of access to the courts. The Court of Appeals then noted that in Martin v. Richey, 711 N.E.2d 1273 (Ind.1999), we explained that a statute of limitations limits the substantive right that gives rise to a claim, but does not abrogate the right to seek redress in court. The court viewed the Three Strikes Law as comparable to a statute of limitations which acts only as a limiting device. The Court of Appeals balanced the right of a prisoner to bring a civil action against the burden of frequent litigation on the court system. Smith v. Ind. Dep't of Corr., 853 N.E.2d 127, 135 (Ind.Ct.App.2006) ("Given the General Assembly's balancing of an offender's right to bring a civil action with the heavy burden that those suits have placed on our judicial system, Indiana Code § 34-58-2-1 does not unreasonably deny offenders the right of access to the courts and is therefore facially constitutional under the Open Courts Clause.").3 In a similar case decided after Smith, the Court of Appeals again held that the Three Strikes Law does not violate the Open Courts Clause because the heavy burden on the courts from prolific filers outweighs the rights of those offenders to bring any more claims. Higgason v. Ind. Dep't of Corr., 864 N.E.2d 1133, 1136-37 (Ind.Ct.App.2007), trans. denied ("Consistent with the protections of Article I, Section 12, any restriction must be a rational means to achieve a legitimate legislative goal.... I.C. § 34-58-2-1 does not unreasonably deny offenders the right of access to the courts, but offers a balance between an offender's right to bring a civil action and the heavy burden that those claims have placed on our judicial system.").

For the reasons explained below, we conclude that the Three Strikes Law violates the Open Courts Clause of the Indiana Constitution. The Indiana Constitution does not balance the inconvenience of entertaining a claim against the right to seek redress from the courts subject to reasonable conditions. To the contrary, the right to petition the courts is absolute. This does not mean that meritless claims may not be summarily dismissed under the Frivolous Claim Law. It does mean that an individualized assessment of each claim is required, and a claim cannot be dismissed on the basis of who presents it rather than whether it has merit.

I. The Open Courts Clause

Most other states have a constitutional provision declaring in one form or another that courts shall be open and a remedy is to be afforded according to the law. Jennifer Friesen, State Constitutional Law: Litigating Individual Rights, Claims, and Defenses § 6 app. (4th ed.2006). There is little direct evidence of the history or purpose of these provisions. Indeed, "[r]esearch published to date reveals little more than that the provision comes from the Magna Carta Chapter 40, as viewed through the lens of Sir Edward Coke's Second Institute." Jonathan M. Hoffman, By the Course of the Law: The Origins of the Open Courts Clause of State Constitutions, 74 Or. L.Rev. 1279, 1281 (1995). This court adopted that view of the historical background of Indiana's Open Courts Clause in State v. Laramore, 175 Ind. 478, 484-85, 94 N.E. 761, 763 (1911). Chapter 40 of the Magna Carta provides "to no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice." William McKechnie, Magna Carta: A Commentary on the Great Charter of King John 395 (2d ed.1914). Writing in 1671, Coke understood Chapter 40 to give all citizens the right of access to a "remedy by the course of the law" for "injury":

And therefore every Subject of this Realm, for injury done to him in bonis, terris, vel persona, by any other Subject, be he Ecclesiastical, or Temporal, Free or Bond, Man or Woman, Old or Young, or be he outlawed, excommunicated, or any other without exception, may take his remedy by the course of the Law, and have justice and right for the injury done to him, freely without sale, fully without any denial, and speedily without delay.

David Schuman, Oregon's Remedy Guarantee, 65 Or. L.Rev. 35, 39 (1986) (quoting Faith Thompson, Magna Carta: Its Role in Making of the English Constitution 1300-1629, at 365 (1948)). Some variation of Coke's formulation of this right appears in many state constitutions, including Indiana's.4

Some states have understood their similar provisions either to limit legislative alteration of remedies or as no more than a mandate to the courts to administer justice impartially. Compare Jennifer Friesen, State Constitutional Law: Litigating Individual Rights,...

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