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California Appellate Court Discusses Appointment of Counsel for Incarcerated Litigants

by David M. Reutter

California’s Fifth Appellate District held on August 6, 2019 that trial courts are responsible for recognizing their discretionary duty to appoint counsel and experts to ensure indigent civil prisoner litigants are afforded meaningful access to the courts.

Before the Appellate District was an appeal brought by California prisoner Gregory Smith, who alleged medical malpractice claims against a doctor and nurse practitioner that occurred between August 2011 and December 2013 while he was held at the Pleasant Valley State Prison. Smith moved for appointment of counsel.

In denying his motion, the trial court said it had authority to appoint counsel to criminal defendants but lacked authority to appoint counsel in a civil case. Subsequent to that denial, as Smith predicted, he could not obtain a medical expert’s declaration to contradict the defendants’ expert opinion that the care he received met the applicable standard of care. That resulted in the trial court granting summary judgment to the defendants.

The Appellate District found that precedent cases had identified appointment of counsel as one of the discretionary measures available to a trial court to assure an indigent prisoner is provided meaningful access to the courts to prosecute a civil action.

In exercising that discretion, a court must decide if the prisoner’s “access to the courts is impeded.” Courts must examine the totality of the circumstances, and should consider the factors set forth in federal rulings for determining whether exceptional circumstances exist in a particular case.

Where an indigent prisoner requests appointment of counsel, trial courts “must (1) recognize their discretionary authority to appoint counsel or implement other measures to afford the plaintiff meaningful access to the courts and (2) exercise that discretion in an informed manner.” 

The Appellate District found Smith had alleged sufficient facts for the trial court to exercise its discretion, and the case was remanded to determine if Smith was indigent and “whether the lawsuit involved a bona fide threat to his personal or property interests.” If those two conditions are met, the trial court must determine what remedies are appropriate to protect Smith’s right to meaningful access to the courts, including “the appointment of counsel and the appointment of an expert under Evidence Code section 730.”

The trial court’s order denying Smith’s motion for appointment of counsel was vacated, and the court was instructed to “conditionally vacate its order granting the motion for summary judgment.” See: Smith v. Ogbuehi, 38 Cal.App.5th 453 (Cal. 5th App. Dist. 2019). 

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Related legal case

Smith v. Ogbuehi