Smith v. Indiana Dept. of Correction

Decision Date23 August 2006
Docket NumberNo. 49A02-0601-CV-58.,49A02-0601-CV-58.
PartiesEric D. SMITH, Appellant-Plaintiff, v. INDIANA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION, et al., Appellees-Defendants.
CourtIndiana Appellate Court

Eric D. Smith, Westville, IN, Pro Se Appellant.

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

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

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

OPINION

VAIDIK, Judge.

Case Summary

Eric D. Smith, an inmate at the Maximum Control Facility at Westville Correctional Center, appeals the trial court's dismissal of his complaint pursuant to Indiana Code § 34-58-2-1, which provides that if an offender has filed at least three civil actions in which a state court has dismissed the action or a claim under Indiana Code § 34-58-1-2, the offender may not file a new complaint or petition unless a court determines that he is in immediate danger of serious bodily injury. Specifically, Smith contends that Indiana Code § 34-58-2-1 violates the Open Courts and Privileges and Immunities Clauses of the Indiana Constitution because it restricts offenders' access to the courts. In this issue of first impression, we conclude that Indiana Code § 34-58-2-1 is constitutional and therefore affirm the dismissal of Smith's complaint.1

Facts and Procedural History

On November 7, 2005, Smith filed a Complaint for Damages in Marion Superior Court against the Indiana Department of Correction ("DOC"), the Maximum Control Facility, and DOC employees Ed Buss, Pam Bane, George Payne, J. Shreaves, Ms. Zschoche, and Stephen J. Huckins (collectively "the defendants"). Smith alleged that while incarcerated at the Maximum Control Facility, the defendants refused to provide him with copies of legal materials. Smith said that as a resuit, he "was forced to take direct action" on June 23, 2005. Appellant's App. p. 12. Specifically, Smith set up a hammock approximately twenty feet in the air in the prison's recreation room by tying a bed sheet to some water pipes and refused to come down until the defendants copied his legal materials. Smith

left the guards a note, explaining that he needed and wanted his copies and would peacefully come down if he could get them and threatened that he would hurt anyone attempting to grab him down from the bedsheet and that he was willing to die in order to get his copies, because without the copies he wouldn't be able to get out of prison for his wrongful arson conviction.

Id. at 14. Officers had to use chemical spray and pepper balls to force Smith down, which Smith alleges caused him injury and pain. Smith sought $300,000.00 in damages from the defendants as well as injunctive and declaratory relief.

On December 15, 2005, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss. In that motion, the defendants asserted that on November 2, 2005—five days before Smith filed his complaint in this case—the LaPorte Superior Court issued an order in another one of Smith's lawsuits that pursuant to Indiana Code § 34-58-2-1, Smith may not file a new complaint or petition without the court first determining that he is in immediate danger of serious bodily injury. The case to which the State referred in its motion to dismiss is Smith v. Maximum Control Facility, 850 N.E.2d 476 (Ind.Ct. App.2006), in which we issued an opinion on July 13, 2006. In that case, the LaPorte Superior Court ordered that because it was the third civil action in which a court found that Smith's claim may not proceed pursuant to Indiana Code § 34-58-1-2, he may not file a new complaint or petition without the court first determining that he is in immediate danger of serious bodily injury. In accordance with the LaPorte Superior Court's order in Smith v. Maximum Control Facility, on December 16, 2005, the Marion Superior Court issued the following order in this case:

THE COURT FINDS that it does not have subject matter jurisdiction over the plaintiff's complaint pursuant to Ind. Code § 34-58-2-1. Three civil actions filed by the plaintiff have been found to [sic] unable to proceed under Ind.Code § 34-58-1-2.

THE COURT FINDS that the allegations contained in the plaintiff's complaint do not support a claim of immediate danger of serious bodily injury as defined by Ind.Code § 35-41-1-25.

IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that the plaintiff's complaint be dismissed with prejudice.

Appellant's App. p. 45. Smith, pro se, now appeals the dismissal of his complaint. We invited the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council and the Public Defender of Indiana to appear as amicus curiae because of the ramifications of the constitutional issues presented in this case.2

Discussion and Decision

This appeal concerns a host of statutes that the Indiana General Assembly enacted in 2004 to screen and limit civil actions filed by offenders. These five statutes— specifically, Indiana Code §§ 34-58-1-1 to -4 and Indiana Code § 34-58-2-1— apply to causes of action filed after June 30, 2004. P.L. 80-2004. These statutes are in direct response to the prolific offender litigation that has been occurring in our state courts and were designed to balance an offender's right to file a civil action with the heavy burden that those suits have placed on our judicial system.3 We now turn to the key statutes.

Indiana Code § 34-58-1-1 provides, "Upon receipt of a complaint or petition filed by an offender, the court shall docket the case and take no further action until the court has conducted the review required by section 2 of this chapter." Section 2, in turn, 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.

Ind.Code § 34-58-1-2. If a court determines that a claim may not proceed under section 2, the court shall enter an order explaining why the claim may not proceed and stating whether there are any remaining claims in the complaint or petition that may proceed. Ind.Code § 34-58-1-3. In addition, Indiana Code § 34-58-2-1 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)."

On appeal, Smith argues that the last of these sectionsIndiana Code § 34-58-2-1—violates Article I, Sections 12 and 23 of the Indiana Constitution.4 Before proceeding to Smith's constitutional challenges, we address some preliminary matters.

In dismissing Smith's claim, the Marion Superior Court relied upon the LaPorte Superior Court's order in Smith v. Maximum Control Facility that Smith was subject to the restriction contained in Indiana Code § 34-58-2-1. However, in Smith v. Maximum Control Facility, we reversed the trial court's imposition of this restriction because one of the three dismissals the trial court relied upon was improper. 850 N.E.2d at 479. Nevertheless, on November 7, 2006—the very same day that Smith filed his complaint in this case—the LaPorte Superior Court imposed the same restriction in yet another one of Smith's lawsuits, Smith v. Huckins, 850 N.E.2d 480 (Ind.Ct.App.2006), in which we also issued an opinion on July 13, 2006. In Smith v. Huckins, we affirmed the imposition of the restriction. Id. at 484-85. Even though we reversed the imposition of the restriction in Smith v. Maximum Control Facility, Smith nevertheless had three civil actions in which a state court had dismissed an action or claim pursuant to Indiana Code § 34-58-1-2 on the date that Smith filed his complaint in this case; therefore, Smith was still subject to the restriction contained in Indiana Code § 34-58-2-1.5

In addition, we note that the trial court dismissed Smith's complaint after the State of Indiana entered an appearance on behalf of the defendants and filed a motion to dismiss. However, Indiana Code § 34-58-1-1 contemplates that the trial court conducts a sua sponte review of an offender's complaint or petition promptly upon filing. This means that the court's review should occur before the defendant even has an opportunity to become involved in the case and to file a responsive pleading or any other dispositive motion. This prompt review is so that the defendant does not have to expend time and money on a meritless or frivolous case. The trial court most likely did not conduct a prompt review in this case because it was unaware that Smith was a prolific litigator who has had other complaints dismissed pursuant to Indiana Code § 34-58-1-2. As is shown by the four Smith cases we issued on July 13, 2006,6 most of Smith's litigation occurs in LaPorte County, which is where the prison facility is located. Here, Smith filed his complaint in Marion County, and the State informed the court of Smith's litigious background in its motion to dismiss filed approximately five weeks later.7 Despite the fact that the trial court dismissed Smith's complaint after the State filed a motion to dismiss, the standard of review is the same as if the court had dismissed the complaint after promptly reviewing it.

In Smith v. Huckins, we established, for the first time, the standard of review for a dismissal made pursuant to Indiana Code § 34-58-1-2, under which a claim may not...

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