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California Damage Suit Improperly Treated as Habeas Petition

The California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, reversed a lower court’s orders treating a prisoner’s damages action as a habeas corpus petition and then denying relief.

California prisoner Ernest L. Cox filed a civil suit in state court against various prison officials, alleging sexual harassment, intentional infliction of emotional distress and due process violations. He sought compensatory and punitive damages plus injunctive relief.

Cox sought to compel the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to develop sexual harassment training and dismiss a disciplinary violation he had received. He also sought a judicial declaration that a prison rule regarding “unlawful influence” was vague and uncertain.

Under California Government Code (CGC), section 945.4, no damages action may be brought against a public entity “until a written claim therefore has been presented to the public entity” and has been acted on and deemed denied. However, CGC section 946.6(a) allows a court to relieve a plaintiff from the requirements of section 945.4.

Cox filed a petition under § 946.6(a), seeking relief from the government claims filing requirement of CGC section 945.4. The superior court struck the civil complaint, ordered it refiled as a habeas corpus petition and did not address the merits of the § 946.4 petition. It then denied habeas relief.

Cox filed a petition for writ of mandate in the California Court of Appeal. He sought to compel the superior court to reverse its orders striking his complaint and denying the putative habeas petition.

The appellate court agreed that the lower court had erred in treating the civil complaint as a habeas corpus petition. It also held that the court must consider the merits of the petition for relief from the government claims filing requirement.

“A court has authority to treat one type of writ petition as another type when it is procedurally appropriate to do so,” the Court of Appeal observed. “But a court may not treat one petition as another type when the effect is to limit the petitioner’s legal remedies.”

Noting that “habeas corpus is not an appropriate or available remedy for damages claims,” the appellate court concluded that “deeming a civil complaint to be a habeas corpus proceeding is not an appropriate remedy to ensure a prisoner’s access to court when the civil complaint seeks damages which are inappropriate or unavailable in a habeas corpus proceeding.” See: Cox v. Superior Court of Amador County, 1 Cal. App. 5th 855, 205 Cal.Rptr.3d 188 (Cal. App. 3d Dist. 2016). 

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Related legal case

Cox v. Superior Court of Amador County