Zavala v. Strack, 061120 TXCA13, 13-19-00201-CV

Docket Nº13-19-00201-CV
Opinion JudgeDORI CONTRERAS CHIEF JUSTICE
Party NameSALVADOR ZAVALA, TDCJ NO. 1447730, Appellant, v. SVEN STRACK, ET AL., Appellees.
Judge PanelBefore Chief Justice Contreras and Justices Benavides and Longoria
Case DateJune 11, 2020
CourtCourt of Appeals of Texas

SALVADOR ZAVALA, TDCJ NO. 1447730, Appellant,

v.

SVEN STRACK, ET AL., Appellees.

No. 13-19-00201-CV

Court of Appeals of Texas, Thirteenth District, Corpus Christi-Edinburg

June 11, 2020

On appeal from the 36th District Court of Bee County, Texas.

Before Chief Justice Contreras and Justices Benavides and Longoria

MEMORANDUM OPINION

DORI CONTRERAS CHIEF JUSTICE

Appellant Salvador Zavala, a Texas inmate proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, appeals the dismissal of his lawsuit against appellees Sven Strack, David M. Rios, Christie L. Garcia, Corey Furr, Claudia Y. Becerra, Braulio Sanchez, Melissa J. Stengel, M. Blalock, Gene E. Miller, Grievance Investigator ID #1950, Grievance Investigator ID #1312, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice-Institutional Division (TDCJ). By two issues, appellant argues the trial court erred when it (1) dismissed his suit under chapter 14 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code and (2) declared him a vexatious litigant. We affirm.

I. Background

Appellant is an inmate at the McConnell Unit of TDCJ in Beeville, Texas. On May 7, 2018, appellant filed suit against appellees in their official and individual capacities. In his petition, appellant alleged that he was given a false disciplinary charge by Strack and that the hearing on the disciplinary charge did not comply with TDCJ policy and rules, denying him due process of law. Appellant also alleged Strack broke his typewriter and illegally confiscated it in retaliation for filing grievances. Appellant sought judicial review of the disciplinary ruling and asserted claims for "denial [of] a fair disciplinary hearing," retaliation, breach of contract, "participatory liability - assisting and encouraging," conspiracy, common law fraud, declaratory relief, and injunctive relief.

Appellant submitted to the trial court the report from his disciplinary hearing, his level 1 and 2 grievances, a declaration of previously filed suits, and a "Request to pay for suit through my inmate trust fund." The report from the hearing on the disciplinary charge stated that appellant possessed contraband, "namely, freeworld pens, markers, and highlighters, which are items no [sic] allowed or assigned to an offender, and not bought by [appellant] for his use from the commissary." Appellant lost recreation and commissary privileges for thirty days as punishment. In his level 1 grievance, appellant complained that: the alleged violation was not investigated within the time frame provided by TDCJ's rules; he was never in possession of contraband or it did not belong to him; and Strack falsified the disciplinary case to justify the illegal confiscation of his typewriter.

The Texas Attorney General filed an amicus curiae brief advising the trial court to dismiss appellant's suit because his claims had no arguable basis in law or in fact and recommending that the trial court declare appellant a vexatious litigant. The attorney general submitted copies of nine civil judgments rendered against appellant in the preceding three years. After a hearing at which appellant participated via telephone, the trial court dismissed appellant's lawsuit with prejudice and declared him a vexatious litigant. This appeal followed.

II. Dismissal Under Chapter 14

By his first issue, appellant argues that the trial court erred when it dismissed his claims under chapter 14.[1]

A. Applicable Law & Standard of Review

Chapter 14 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code applies to any action brought by an inmate in which an affidavit or unsworn declaration of inability to pay costs has been filed, other than one brought under the family code. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 14.002; Thomas v. Knight, 52 S.W.3d 292, 294 (Tex. App.-Corpus Christi- Edinburg 2001, pet. denied).2 A trial court may dismiss a suit under chapter 14 if it is frivolous, considering whether: (1) the claim's realistic chance of ultimate success is slight; (2) the claim has no arguable basis in law or in fact; (3) it is clear that the party cannot prove facts in support of the claim; or (4) the claim is substantially similar to a previous claim filed by the inmate because the claim arises from the same operative facts.

Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 14.003(b).

Generally, we review a trial court's dismissal of a lawsuit under chapter 14 for an abuse of discretion. In re Douglas, 333 S.W.3d 273, 293 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2010, pet. denied). The trial court abuses its discretion if it acts arbitrarily, unreasonably, or without reference to any guiding rules and principles. Downer v. Aquamarine Operators, Inc., 701 S.W.3d 238, 341-42 (Tex. 1985). "The mere fact that a trial judge may decide a matter within his discretionary authority in a different manner than an appellate judge in a similar circumstance does not demonstrate that an abuse of discretion has occurred." Id. at 242.

In our review of whether a claim has an arguable basis in law, we take the inmate's allegations as true and determine whether, as a matter of law, the petition stated a cause of action that would authorize relief. Brewer v. Simental, 268 S.W.3d 763, 770 (Tex. App.-Waco 2008, no pet.); see Hamilton v. Williams, 298 S.W.3d 334, 339 (Tex. App.- Fort Worth 2009, pet. denied). We review pro se pleadings "by standards less stringent than those applied to formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Brewer, 268 S.W.3d at 770; see Minix v. Gonzalez, 162 S.W.3d 635, 637 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2005, no pet.). A claim has no arguable basis in law only if it is based on (1) wholly incredible or irrational factual allegations, or (2) an indisputably meritless legal theory. Nabelek v. Dist. Attorney of Harris Cty., 290 S.W.3d 222, 228 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2005, pet. denied). An inmate's claim may not be dismissed merely because the court considers the allegations "unlikely." Id.

B. Chapter 14 Applies to Appellant's Suit

Appellant first argues that Chapter 14 does not apply to him because he filed a "request to pay for suit through my inmate trust fund unable to pay court costs upfront." Chapter 14 applies to an action brought by an inmate "in which an affidavit or unsworn declaration of inability to pay costs is filed by the inmate." Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 14.002(a). In the event that an inmate files such a declaration-and, thus, chapter 14 applies-the trial court may order an inmate to pay the total amount of court fees and costs from an inmate's trust account. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 14.006(a), (c), (d).3

Here, appellant is an inmate who filed an unsworn declaration of his inability to pay court costs and submitted a copy of his inmate trust account indicating that his balance at the time he filed suit was $2.78. The record indicates that the court costs and fees incurred were $309. Appellant requested that the trial court assess court costs against his inmate trust account, and the...

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