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Fifth Circuit: Suit Cannot be Dismissed for Following Form’s Instructions; Allegations of Retroactive Negative Changes in Texas Parole Law States Claim

by Matthew T. Clarke

On December 12, 2006, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a prisoner’s lawsuit could not be dismissed for failing to list supporting statutory law when the instructions on the forms promulgated by the federal courts told prisoners not to include legal arguments or cite cases or statutes. The Fifth Circuit also held that allegations of negative retroactive effects of changes in Texas parole statutes and policies stated a claim.

Russell Norman Olstad, Jr., a Texas state prisoner, filed a civil rights suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that retroactive changes in parole statutes and parole board policies had effectively lengthened the amount of time he had to spend in prison.

The magistrate judge recommended that the suit be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, because Olstad had failed to specify which parole policies and statues he was challenging. Olstad objected, claiming that he could not specify the statutes and policies because the amendments to the statutes and parole board policies were not available in Texas prison law libraries. The district court overruled his objections and dismissed the case. Olstad appealed.

The Fifth Circuit held that the dismissal of the suit was an abuse of discretion because Olstad had stated a claim upon which relief could be granted. Furthermore, the Court found that “Section V of the Western District of Texas § 1983 form instructs plaintiffs to give ‘in a short and plain statement the facts of your case.’ Additionally, the same form provides, ‘You need not give any legal arguments or cite any cases [or] statutes.’”

Olstad stated in his complaint that “Each defendant has retroactively implemented or applied a law, rule or policy which did not exist at the time of Plaintiff’s crime to substantially increase Plaintiff’s risk of greater punishment or longer incarceration in violation of the Ex Post Facto Clause of the United States Constitution. More information is set forth in the pages attached to this complaint.” Olstad attached statistics to his complaint to support his allegation that changes in Texas parole statutes resulted in longer incarceration. This may have been marginal, but it was sufficient.

“Not only did the magistrate judge’s report fail to construe Olstad’s claim liberally, it was directly contradicted by his initial complaint,” in that the report stated Olstad had failed to allege that the changes he complained of had an adverse affect on his punishment. Even if the lack of specificity was a basis for dismissal, the district court should have investigated Olstad’s claims regarding the non-availability of the statutes, rules and policies in the prison law library. Olstad still had to prove that the amendments to the policies and statutes caused “a significant risk of prolonging [his] incarceration,” but the Fifth Circuit held he should be given an opportunity to do so. Therefore, the judgment was vacated and the case returned to the district court for further proceedings. See: Olstad v. Collier, 205 Fed.Appx. 308 (5th Cir. 2006).

On remand, Olstad’s suit was dismissed on a motion for summary judgment, as the district court found no ex post facto violation based on the facts presented.

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Related legal case

Olstad v. Collier