The opinion of the court was delivered by: Senior Judge Friedman
Submitted: January 15, 2010
BEFORE: HONORABLE RENÉE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge, HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge, HONORABLE ROCHELLE S. FRIEDMAN, Senior Judge.
Eugene Watson (Watson) appeals from the June 26, 2009, order of the Court of Common Pleas of Somerset County (trial court), which denied Watson's request to proceed in forma pauperis and dismissed with prejudice his civil action against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC), Shannon Voll Poliziani (Poliziani) and Jawad A. Salameh, M.D. (Dr. Salameh) (collectively, Defendants). We affirm.
Watson filed a complaint with the trial court, alleging that he has filed two other lawsuits against Dr. Salameh, the medical director at the State Correctional Institution at Laurel Highlands (SCI-LAU). Watson avers that he sent a notice of deposition to Dr. Salameh, and, because Watson has a disability, Watson requested that an inmate who usually assists him at court hearings be permitted to assist him at the deposition.*fn1 Watson's unit manager granted the request.
On the morning of the deposition, the unit manager informed Watson that Poliziani, counsel for Dr. Salameh, objected to being in a room with two inmates, and, therefore, the court reporter would assist Watson. Watson told the unit manager that he did not believe the court reporter could assist him properly because such a person is supposed to be impartial and merely take down testimony. The unit manager called the prison's Americans with Disabilities Act*fn2 (ADA) coordinator in an effort to obtain assistance for Watson. After making another phone call, the unit manager informed Watson that Poliziani would assist him, but Watson believed this was inappropriate because Poliziani's job was to represent Dr. Salameh.
At the deposition, Watson objected to Poliziani's depriving him of an inmate assistant. Poliziani responded that the DOC made the decision. During the deposition, Poliziani objected to the amount of time Watson was taking, tried to get corrections officers to terminate the deposition and, ultimately, terminated the deposition while Watson was taking a bathroom break. As a result, Watson did not have an opportunity to ask Dr. Salameh highly relevant questions. Moreover, after the deposition, Watson suffered emotional distress and needed narcotic medication for pain in his fingers and wrists.
Watson filed his complaint with the trial court. In Count I, Watson sought more than $50,000 in damages from the DOC for violating Watson's right under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (RA)*fn3 to a reasonable accommodation for his disabilities. In Count II, Watson sought the same amount from Poliziani and Dr. Salameh for failing to make a reasonable accommodation for Watson's disabilities. In Count III, Watson sought the same amount from Poliziani and Dr. Salameh for violating his due process rights.
Watson alleged in his complaint that he had exhausted his administrative remedies. In support of that averment, Watson attached to his complaint: (1) a copy of the grievance that he filed with the DOC, which was denied; (2) a copy of his appeal to the Superintendent of SCI-LAU, which was denied; and (3) an unsigned appeal to the Office of Inmate Grievances and Appeals. Watson also attached to his complaint a petition to proceed in forma pauperis.
By order dated June 26, 2009, the trial court denied Watson's petition to proceed in forma pauperis and dismissed his complaint with prejudice. The trial court explained in a memorandum opinion that: (1) it dismissed the action pursuant to section 6602(e)(2) of the Act known as the Prison Litigation Reform Act (State Act),*fn4 which allows a court to dismiss prison conditions litigation if it determines that the defendant is entitled to assert a valid affirmative defense that, if asserted, would preclude relief; and (2) the Defendants are entitled to assert as an affirmative defense that Watson failed to exhaust his administrative remedies because his attachments to the complaint do not establish that he exhausted the final step in the grievance process.*fn5
Addressing the merits of Watson's complaint, the trial court stated that it was familiar with what happened at the deposition because it was discussed in a telephone conference after Watson filed a motion for additional deposition time in another case before the trial court. Based on what it learned, the trial court stated that: (1) Poliziani did, in fact, assist Watson at the deposition; (2) the deposition lasted seven hours; and (3) Watson asked repetitive questions and raised irrelevant issues. The trial court indicated that it denied Watson's request for additional time so that Dr. Salameh would not be subjected to "never ending interrogation." (Trial ct. mem. at 4.)
Watson filed a notice of appeal and, subsequently, a concise statement of matters complained of on appeal pursuant to Pa. R.A.P. 1925(b). Watson argued that:
(1) he was not required to demonstrate exhaustion of remedies in his complaint; (2) the trial court erred in deciding factual disputes as to whether he received assistance at the deposition; (3) the trial court erred in concluding that the action was frivolous; and (4) the trial court erred in dismissing his complaint with prejudice.
In its Pa. R.A.P. 1925 Opinion, the trial court stated that Watson raised exhaustion of administrative remedies in the complaint, and it was a valid affirmative defense that, if raised by Defendants, would preclude relief. As to the merits of the complaint, the trial court defended its dismissal of the complaint with prejudice by explaining that: (1) the DOC did not refuse Watson's request to make a reasonable accommodation; and (2) although Poliziani and Dr. ...