Despite the best efforts of the Legislature to limit frivolous prisoner lawsuits by enacting the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which requires exhaustion of administrative remedies, proof of a physical injury that is more than de minimis in order to recover emotional distress damages, and limits attorney fee recovery to 150% of the verdict, the state and federal courts in California have slowly removed the teeth of this statute.
Many other barriers for pro per indigent prisoner litigants have also been eroded, at the expense of taxpayers. The case of Barry Jameson v. Desta is one such example.
In 2002, inmate Barry Jameson was incarcerated in the state prison in San Diego County (R.J. Donovan). He sued Dr. Tadesse Desta, a prison doctor, for not properly treating his hepatitis C. The lawsuit was repeatedly dismissed, then resurrected by the appeals court, three times over a decade. In 2014, the case went to trial in San Diego. But right after opening statements, the judge granted a motion by the defense to dismiss the case, ruling that Jameson had not shown he would be able to produce evidence of medical malpractice and that the suit took more than five years to get to trial, in violation of state law.
Jameson again appealed. But because he could not hire a certified court reporter for the trial, and the San Diego court does not provide court reporters in civil cases for free, even for indigent parties, he had no transcript to present on appeal. The appeal was dismissed.
Jameson appealed to the state Supreme Court, with the help of a pro bono attorney. In July 2018, the California Supreme Court struck down San Diego’s rule denying court reporters to indigent parties without cost, saying that it violated state laws guaranteeing equal justice to all.
Jameson next returned to the appeals court for a ruling on the five-year rule limit. He argued that the rule did not apply because at a previous proceeding in 2011, three years before the start of the trial in 2014, the trial judge decided a summary judgment motion in his favor and therefore a trial had legally been conducted since the motion considered whether there was a “triable issue of material fact.” The appeals court agreed, returning the case for a fourth time to the trial court.
The problem is that Jameson’s underlying suit, about his medical care for hepatitis C, is likely without merit. State prison doctors are board certified and supervised by the Receiver’s office, medical review boards, and the courts. Due to the large number of inmates with hepatitis C, the prison system has a protocol for the handling of the disease at each of its various stages. While many inmates complain about their treatment, for example requesting medication they read about which may not be medically indicated or available, or blaming the medication they did receive for side effects, a difference of opinion about a prisoner’s medical treatment does not constitute negligence or deliberate indifference. So by overturning a law shifting costs of court reporters to the parties, and finding a technical loophole in the statute requiring state law cases to go to trial within five years, Jameson is adding needless costs to the state budget and extending his frivolous litigation.
While some may argue that providing equal access to the courts is an important value in itself, a prisoner with a meritorious case would likely find counsel willing to represent him or her on a contingency basis. Prisoner lawsuits brought under the civil rights act (42 U.S.C. § 1983) provide for the recovery of attorney’s fees to the prevailing party. In the Central District, the rates awarded by judges can be as high as $900/hour.
Further, there are ways to allow equal access to prisoners without breaking the state’s bank. For example, legislators in California could authorize the use of electronic recording to generate a record of trial court proceedings, as an alternative to a court reporter. Currently, these are only allowed in limited civil actions (with claims under $25,000) and in misdemeanor criminal cases. Additionally, while federal courts have enacted a process for one day expedited jury trials, it is not often used but could be helpful to resolve this type of case.