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Richardson v. Commonwealth, Department of Corrections

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

July 30, 2014

David D. Richardson, Appellant
v.
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Corrections, John E. Wetzel, Secretary

Submitted June 6, 2014

Page 431

Appealed from No. 2013 Civil 3434. Common Pleas Court of the County of Mercer. Yeatts, J.

David D. Richardson, Pro se.

Chase M. Defelice, Assistant Counsel, Mechanicsburg, for appellees.

BEFORE: HONORABLE DAN PELLEGRINI, President Judge, HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge, HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, Judge.

OPINION

Page 432

COVEY, JUDGE

David D. Richardson (Richardson), pro se, an inmate at State Correctional Institution -- Mercer (SCI-Mercer), appeals from the Mercer County Common Pleas Court's (trial court) December 27, 2013 order sustaining the preliminary objections filed by the Department of Corrections and Secretary John E. Wetzel (collectively, Department) and dismissing with prejudice Richardson's complaint challenging the constitutionality of Section 6602(f) of the statute commonly known as the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 Pa.C.S. § 6602(f). The sole issue for this Court's review is whether Richardson failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Upon review, we vacate the trial court's order, assume original jurisdiction, and after consideration of the Department's preliminary objections, we sustain the preliminary objections and dismiss Richardson's complaint.

Richardson filed several legal actions which were dismissed under Section 6602(f) of the PLRA,[1] known as the " three strikes rule." This Section permits a court to revoke a prisoner's in forma pauperis status:

if the [prisoner] filed three or more civil actions involving prison conditions and these civil actions have been dismissed as frivolous or malicious or for failure to state a claim. When a [prisoner's] in forma pauperis status is revoked, a court may dismiss the [prisoner's] complaint if the [prisoner] thereafter fails to pay the filing fees and costs associated with the litigation.

Brown v. Dep't of Corr., 58 A.3d 118, 121 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2012).

On October 16, 2013, Richardson filed a complaint with the trial court requesting the trial court to declare Section 6602(f) of the PLRA unconstitutional in violation of the Due Process Clauses of the 14th Amendment to the United States (U.S.) Constitution[2] and Article 1, Section 26 of the Pennsylvania Constitution,[3] and/or Article 3, Section 32 of the Pennsylvania Constitution (prohibiting special legislation).[4]

Page 433

On November 25, 2013, the Department filed preliminary objections to Richardson's complaint on the basis that it fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. On December 27, 2013, the trial court, relying upon this Court's opinion in Jae v. Good, 946 A.2d 802 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2008), sustained the Department's preliminary objections and dismissed Richardson's complaint with prejudice. Richardson appealed to this Court.[5]

In its preliminary objections, the Department asserts that, as recognized by the Jae Court, the right to access the courts is not absolute, and that denying a prisoner the ability to proceed in forma pauperis does not deprive the prisoner of that right. Richardson, however, argues that Section 6602(f) of the PLRA penalizes him for exercising his constitutional rights to access the courts, in violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article 1, Section 26 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. He further contends that Jae is inapplicable to his claim that Section 6602(f) of the PLRA violates his due process rights because Jae involved an equal protection challenge to Section 6602(f) of the PLRA, rather than a due process challenge. We disagree.

Initially, we note that the law is well-established that " legislation will not be declared unconstitutional unless it clearly, palpably and plainly violates the Constitution, with any doubts being resolved in favor of constitutionality." Harristown Dev. Corp. v. Dep't of Gen. Servs., 532 Pa. 45, 614 A.2d 1128, 1132 (Pa. 1992). Thus, " [t]he party seeking to overcome the presumption of validity bears a heavy burden of persuasion." W. Mifflin Area Sch. Dist. v. Zahorchak, 607 Pa. 153, 4 A.3d 1042, 1048 (Pa. 2010).

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stated:

When confronted with a constitutional challenge premised upon substantive due process grounds, the threshold inquiry is whether the challenged statute purports to restrict or regulate a constitutionally protected right. If the statute restricts a fundamental right, it must be

Page 434

examined under strict scrutiny. Pursuant to that analysis, legislation that significantly interferes with the exercise of a fundamental right will be upheld only if it is necessary to promote a compelling state interest and is narrowly tailored to effectuate that state purpose.

Khan v. State Bd. of Auctioneer Exam'rs, 577 Pa. 166, 842 A.2d 936, 947 (Pa. 2004) (citations omitted). Where a fundamental right is not impaired, the statute is reviewed under the rational basis test. See id.; see also Doe v. Miller, 886 A.2d 310 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2005), aff'd, 587 Pa. 502, 901 A.2d 495 (Pa. 2006).

In Jae, this Court held that Section 6602(f) of the PLRA did not violate the Equal Protection Clauses of the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions. The Jae Court explained:

[T]he right of access to courts is not absolute. Further, requiring a prisoner to pay the filing fees that are imposed on all litigants in a civil case does not, standing alone, violate that prisoner's right of meaningful access to the courts. Because there is no fundamental right to proceed in court in forma pauperis, we do not apply the strict scrutiny test but, rather, the rational basis test.

Jae, 946 A.2d at 808-09 (citation omitted). The Jae Court concluded that Section 6602(f) of the PLRA was rationally related to a legitimate state interest, stating:

The 'three strikes rule' of Section 6602(f) of the PLRA does not prevent prisoners from filing any number of civil actions challenging prison conditions. It only restricts their ability to pursue such actions in forma pauperis. There is a legitimate governmental interest in deterring frivolous law suits, and Section 6602(f) advances that goal rationally by depriving an abusive litigator of the ability to proceed in forma pauperis. Further, the legislation balances the need to deter prisoners from filing frivolous litigation against the need to protect prisoners from physical harm.

Jae, 946 A.2d at 809 (footnote omitted).

This Court has explained that " the analysis of a substantive Due Process claim is the same analysis as that performed under an Equal Protection claim." Zauflik v. Pennsbury Sch. Dist., 72 A.3d 773, 792 n.28 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2013); see also Doe, 886 A.2d at 314. Thus, the Court's analysis in Jae is clearly applicable to Richardson's due process claim.

We also reject Richardson's contention that Section 6602(f) of the PLRA impairs his right to access the courts; more specifically, that Section 6602(f) of the PLRA acts as an unconstitutional penalty imposing " strikes" because his prior prison condition lawsuits were dismissed. He asserts that he is being penalized " for doing what the law plainly allows him to do[.]" Richardson's Reply Br. (filed December 10, 2013) at 5.[6] However, the law does not " plainly allow" a litigant to prosecute a frivolous claim. See Jae, 946 A.2d at 809 n.14. Further, Section 6602(f) of the PLRA does not violate Richardson's right of meaningful access to the courts since Richardson may pursue his claims, but he must pay the same filing fees as other litigants. As this Court recognized in Jae, " there is no fundamental right to proceed in court in forma pauperis. . . ." Id. at 808. Thus, consistent with this Court's holding in Jae that Section 6602(f) of the PLRA does not violate the Equal Protection Clauses of the U.S. and Pennsylvania

Page 435

Constitutions, we similarly conclude that it does not violate substantive due process.

Richardson further asserts that Section 6602(f) of the PLRA violates the constitutional prohibition on special legislation because it creates a closed class with one member -- prisoners. We disagree.

Our Pennsylvania Supreme Court has explained:

Pennsylvania's proscription against local or special laws is currently found in Article III, Section 32, and was first adopted in the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1874. Like many constitutional provisions, it was adopted in response to immediate past abuses. The main purpose behind Article III, Section 32 was to put an end to the flood of privileged legislation for particular localities and for private purposes which was common in 1873. Over the years, the underlying purpose of Article III, Section 32 has been recognized to be analogous to federal principles of equal protection under the law, see U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1, and thus, special legislation claims and equal protection claims have been reviewed under the same jurisprudential rubric. The common constitutional principle at the heart of the special legislation proscription and the equal protection clause is that like persons in like circumstances should be treated similarly by the sovereign. Nonetheless, it is settled that equal protection principles do not vitiate the Legislature's power to classify, which necessarily flows from its general power to enact regulations for the health, safety, and welfare of the community, nor do these principles prohibit differential treatment of persons having different needs. As this Court explained in Curtis [ v. Kline, 542 Pa. 249, 666 A.2d 265 (Pa. 1995)]:
The prohibition against treating people differently under the law does not preclude the Commonwealth from resorting to legislative classifications, provided that those classifications are reasonable rather than arbitrary and bear a reasonable relationship to the object of the legislation. In other words, a classification must rest upon some ground of difference, which justifies the classification and has a fair and substantial relationship to the object of the legislation.
Curtis, 666 A.2d at 268 (citations omitted). Thus, there are a legion of cases recognizing that a legislative classification which appears to be facially discriminatory may nevertheless be deemed lawful if the classification has a rational relationship to a legitimate state purpose. Furthermore . . . legislative classifications must be founded on real distinctions in the subjects classified and not on artificial or irrelevant ones used for the purpose of evading the constitutional prohibition. Finally, in analyzing a special legislation/equal protection challenge, a reviewing court is free to hypothesize reasons the General Assembly might have had for the classification of certain groups.

Pa. Tpk. Comm'n v. Commonwealth, 587 Pa. 347, 899 A.2d 1085, 1094-95 (Pa. 2006) (citations, quotation marks and footnotes omitted); see also Robinson Twp. v. Commonwealth, 83 A.3d 901 (Pa. 2013). However, " a statute may be deemed per se unconstitutional if, under the classification, the class consists of one member and is closed or substantially closed to future membership." [7] Pa. Tpk. Comm'n., 899 A.2d at 1098.

Page 436

In Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, the act at issue applied to a single public employer -- the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (Commission) - and mandated collective bargaining with the Commission's first-level supervisors. The distinguishing factor in the act mandating the differing treatment was the fact that the first-level supervisors worked for the Commission, as opposed to some other public employer. The Court concluded that the act was special legislation because there were " no significant distinctions between the Commission's first-level supervisors and other publicly employed first-level supervisors to justify such special differential treatment." Id. at 1097. The Court also determined that the act was per se unconstitutional because " the General Assembly created a class with one member [(the Commission)] and did so in a fashion that makes it impossible for another member to join the class. The class will never open to more than one member because the General Assembly defined 'public employer' therein as 'The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.'" Id. at 1098.

By arguing that the General Assembly impermissibly created a closed class with one member -- prisoners, Richardson misinterprets the prohibition on per se special legislation. The constitutional prohibition against per se special legislation does not proscribe the creation of a single classification, so long as the classification does not consist of one class member, such as " prisoners incarcerated at SCI-Mercer," as differentiated from prisoners at all state correctional institutions. The classification at issue here is in contrast to that in Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission where the " public employer" classification was drafted to restrict class membership only to the Turnpike Commission as distinct from all other Commonwealth agencies and commissions. The classification before the Court in the instant matter applies to " prisoner[s,]" defined in Section 6601 of the PLRA as " person[s] subject to incarceration, detention or admission to prison." 42 Pa.C.S. § 6601. The classification at issue does not apply only to a single prisoner or prisoners incarcerated within a specified facility. Class membership consists of all " person[s] subject to incarceration, detention or admission to prison." Id. Accordingly, Section 6602(f) of the PLRA is not per se special legislation, and Richardson's argument is meritless.

For all of the above reasons, the trial court's order is vacated, original jurisdiction is assumed, the Department's preliminary objections are sustained and Richardson's complaint is dismissed.

ORDER

AND NOW, this 30th day of July, 2014, the Mercer County Common Pleas Court's December 27, 2013 order is vacated. The Commonwealth Court Chief Clerk is ordered to transfer this matter to our original jurisdiction. The preliminary objections of the Department of Corrections and Secretary John E. Wetzel are sustained and David D. Richardson's complaint is dismissed.


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