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California Prisoner, As Pro Per Plaintiff In Civil Complaint, Has Right To Reasonable Law Library Access

By John E. Dannenberg

The California Court of Appeal (1st District) held that an indigent pro per prisoner plaintiff who is prosecuting a bona fide civil complaint is entitled to meaningful access to the courts. In so holding, the court reversed the summary judgment below against the prisoner because it appeared that his entitlement to fully air his complaint may have been tempered by the prison's restrictions on his access to the prison law library. On remand, the appellate court ordered the trial court to determine as a threshold matter if the prisoner was indigent and had a bona fide case. If so, it must then determine if he was entitled to meaningful access to the courts via appointed counsel or any of the other available techniques suggested.

John Apollo is a prisoner suffering from diverticulitis (disease of the colon) who was transferred to the California Medical Facility state prison (CMF) in Vacaville to gain his doctor-ordered special diet. The diet mandated high fiber, no dairy and no red meat. At CMF, the dietician overrode the doctor's order and ordered Apollo placed on a standard vegetarian diet instead. Apollo protested, arguing that he was not a vegetarian and was in any event entitled to what the doctor ordered. The food service department also balked, stating that they take their orders from Sacramento (headquarters), not from medical doctors.

Apollo unsuccessfully appealed via the prison grievance process. He then filed a tort claim form with the State Board of Control, demanding $250,000 in damages. The Board denied his claim, but authorized him to sue - because the issues therein were "complex" and worthy of determination via litigation. Apollo filed his first civil complaint, albeit with some irregularities that he alleged were due to his restricted prison law library access, within the 6 month statutory limitation period imposed by California Government Code § 945.6. [In a long footnote, the court rejected defendants' motion for an "untimeliness" procedural bar.] While Apollo's complaint was not properly filed until several months after the six month ceiling due to his failure to fully comply with court rules, his initial attempt was timely and the court concluded that he had made a good faith effort to comply. Because his errors were arguably due to lack of meaningful access to the courts, the court remanded the timeliness question back to the trial court to fairly assess.

The appellate court noted that its ruling was not a decree that indigent pro per prisoner civil plaintiffs were entitled to appointment of counsel or to any particular remedy at all.
Rather, upon a showing of both indigency and a bona fide complaint, the trial court could - if law library access proved to be less than meaningful: (1) defer the action until the prisoner's release; (2) appoint counsel; (3) bring the prisoner to court; (4) use depositions instead of personal appearances; (5) hold trial in prison; (6) conduct hearings telephonically; (7) use written discovery; (8) use closed circuit TV.

However, the trial court had no discretion to choose a remedy. Rather, it must conduct an inquiry to determine if assistance is required. For this reason, the appellate court found that it was an error to have granted the dietician's motion for summary judgment in favor of all defendants without first determining if Apollo's statutory rights (Penal Code § 2601) to meaningful court access to prosecute bona fide civil claims was being protected. The court reversed and remanded Apollo's case to the trial court to first conduct this inquiry and then proceed as appropriate. See: Apollo v. Gyaami, 167 Cal.App.4th 1468 (2008).

(592 words)

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Related legal case

Apollo v. Gyaami