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Texas Court Must File Prisoner Suit if Unpaid Previous Indigent Case on Appeal

By Matt Clarke

On November 26, 2008, a Texas court of appeals held that a state district court must file a prisoner's civil suit petition even if he had not paid for the court-ordered fees and costs in a previously filed suit that was currently on appeal.

Gordon R. Simmonds, a Texas state prisoner, filed suit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) and a pauper's affidavit in state district court. The court ruled that the suit was frivolous and, pursuant to Chapter 14 of the Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code (CPRC), ordered Simmonds to pay $207.00 in filing fees and $432.00 in subpoena and service fees. The order instructed the district clerk not to accept any further filings from Simmonds until the fees were paid. Simmonds appealed.

While the appeal was pending, Simmonds sought to file another civil suit, not against TDCJ. Because of the order, he mailed the petition to the district judge. When the district judge did nothing, he mailed a copy to the district clerk who returned it without filing it and included a letter referencing the district judge's order. Simmonds then filed a pro se original petition for a writ of prohibition or mandamus in the court of appeals.

The district court first noted that, pursuant to §14.007(a), CPRC, the district judge was required to make certain findings before assessing service fees or barring further litigation until the fees are paid. This alone would justify mandamus relief for failure to apply the law correctly. For the court order to be in compliance and allow a clerk to properly refuse to file a new suit, "that order must include a finding that (1) the inmate has previously filed a civil action in state court and (2) a final order has been issued that affirms that the action was dismissed as frivolous."

Turning to the larger issue of whether an order dismissing a prisoner's suit as frivolous that is being appealed is "final" so as to justify a further filings prohibition, the court of appeals found that it is not. The court noted that federal courts do not count dismissals against prisoners until the appellate process is exhausted or waived. It could not find a justification for allowing state courts to do so. Therefore, it held that "subsection 14.011(a) does not allow a clerk or trial court to refuse to accept for filing another claim by an inmate until the inmate has exhausted or waived his appeal of the dismissal order at issue in the Subsection 14.007(a)(2) finding." The writ of mandamus was conditionally granted if the district judge failed to file the suit and transmit it to the district clerk.
See: In re Simmonds, 271 S.W.3d 874 (Tex.App.--Waco 2008).

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Related legal case

In re Simmonds