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Texas Prisoner’s Property Destruction Damages Properly Pleaded

By Matt Clarke

A Texas court of appeals has held that a state prisoner properly pleaded damages within the minimum jurisdictional limits of the district court.

Jeffery D. Westbrook, a Texas state prisoner incarcerated at the Allred Unit, filed suit pro se in state district court alleging prison officials on numerous occasions improperly confiscated and destroyed his legal mail and a total of about 100 law, medical and reference books. Westbrook sought $ 5,000 in damages against all defendants, trebled to $ 15,000 and exemplary damages of $10,000 from each of 25 defendants. Prison officials filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which the trial court granted, alleging Westbrook had failed to plead damages within the minimum jurisdictional limits of the court. Westbrook appealed.

The court of appeals held that a trial court must accept the plaintiff’s pleadings of damages as correct unless the defendants specifically allege that the amount was pleaded as a sham to wrongfully obtain jurisdiction or the defendant can readily prove an insufficient amount in controversy. The prison officials argued that the amount in controversy cannot meet the minimum requirements because Westbrook only complained of the loss of legal mail and books. However, the prison officials made no attempt to support this claim by bringing an estimate of the value of the books and mail. Westbrook specifically alleged, for instance, that one destroyed book had a replacement value of $185 while another was valued at $100. He also attached a list of 45 of the destroyed books as an appendix to his complaint.

The court of appeals assumed the minimum jurisdictional limit of district courts was $500.00, but acknowledged that some courts of appeals had held that the limit was as low as $200.01. Either way, Westbrook pleaded sufficient damages, requesting $5,000 trebled to $15,000 in compensatory damages against all defendants and $ 10,000 in punitive damages against each defendant. The prison officials mistakenly depended upon another case in which the prisoner alleged that specific prison officials confiscated specific musical instruments and there was no single defendant with a damage allegation above the jurisdictional minimum. Borrego v. Palacio, 445 S.W.2d 620 (Tex.App.-E1 Paso 1969). In this case, Westbrook alleged sufficient damages against each individual defendant and the defendants collectively. Therefore the trial court’s judgment was reversed and the case returned to the district court. See: Westbrook v. Horton, Tex.App. - Ft. Worth, No. 2-06-169-CV (decided 05-03-07).

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Related legal case

Westbrook v. Horton