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Marshall v. Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Court of Appeals of Texas, Thirteenth District, Corpus Christi-Edinburg

November 9, 2017


         On appeal from the 343rd District Court of Bee County, Texas.

          Before Chief Justice Valdez and Justices Contreras and Hinojosa.


          DORI CONTRERAS Justice.

         Appellant Romarcus Marshall, an inmate proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, appeals by two issues[1] the trial court's dismissal with prejudice of his claim for conversion against appellee, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). We affirm.

         I. Background

         Marshall alleges that on July 24, 2015, prison officials confiscated personal items which were later destroyed. Marshall filed a grievance regarding these events. On January 7, 2016, Marshall received the final disposition from the grievance system provided for by TDCJ stating that no further action was warranted. On April 28, 2016, Marshall filed suit against William Stephens, a former TDCJ-Correctional Institutions Division Director, and Rafael Menchaca, a property officer for the unit where Marshall is housed, for conversion, theft, a violation of his due process rights, and a violation of his right of access to courts. Stephens and Menchaca filed a motion to dismiss for failure to comply with Chapter 14 of the Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code. Before the trial court ruled on the motion to dismiss and reached its final disposition of the case, Marshall amended his pleadings multiple times and ultimately listed TDCJ as defendant[2] and only proceeded with his claim for conversion. The trial court concluded Marshall's suit had no basis in law and dismissed it with prejudice for failure to comply with chapter 14. This appeal followed.

         II. Inmate Litigation

         Chapter 14 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code governs inmate litigation. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 14.002 (West, Westlaw through 2017 1st C.S.); see also id. §§ 14.001-.014 (Inmate Litigation statute). A trial court may dismiss a suit under chapter 14 if it is frivolous, considering whether:

(1) the claim's realistic chance of ultimate success is slight; (2) the claim has no arguable basis in law or in fact; (3) it is clear that the party cannot prove facts in support of the claim; or (4) the claim is substantially similar to a previous claim filed by the inmate because the claim arises from the same operative facts.

Id. § 14.003(b). The trial court has broad discretion to dismiss an inmate's claim as frivolous. Spurlock v. Schroedter, 88 S.W.3d 733, 736 (Tex. App.-Corpus Christi 2002, no pet.). Generally, we review a trial court's dismissal of a lawsuit under chapter 14 for an abuse of discretion. In re Douglas, 333 S.W.3d 273, 293 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2010, pet. denied). However, when, as here, a trial court dismisses a claim as frivolous without a hearing, the issue on appeal is limited to whether the claim had no arguable basis in law. Moreland v. Johnson, 95 S.W.3d 392, 394 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2002, no pet.). This is a legal issue which we review de novo. Id.

         In reviewing the pleadings, we take the inmate's allegations as true and must determine "whether, as a matter of law, the petition stated a cause of action that would authorize relief." Brewer v. Simental, 268 S.W.3d 763, 770 (Tex. App.-Waco 2008, no pet.). We review pro se pleadings "by standards less stringent than those applied to formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Id. A claim has no arguable basis in law only if it is based on (1) wholly incredible or irrational factual allegations, or (2) an indisputably meritless legal theory. Nabelek v. Dist. Attorney of Harris Cty., 290 S.W.3d 222, 228 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2005, pet. denied). An inmate's claim may not be dismissed merely because the court considers the allegations "unlikely." Id. The judgment of the trial court will be affirmed if that judgment can be upheld on any reasonable theory supported by the evidence. Hamilton v. Pechacek, 319 S.W.3d 801, 809 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2010, no pet.).

         III. Statutory Deadline

         By his first issue, Marshall argues that the trial court abused its discretion when it dismissed his claim with prejudice for having no basis in law.

         Section 501.008 of the Texas Government Code establishes a statutory requirement that inmate grievance procedures be exhausted against all parties before a subsequent suit is initiated in court. Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 501.008 (West, Westlaw through 2017 1st C.S.). Section 14.005 of the civil practice and remedies code allows the trial court to ensure that an inmate proceeding in forma pauperis has first exhausted the grievance procedure, if applicable. See Smith v. Tex. Dep't of Crim. Justice-Institutional Div.,33 S.W.3d 338, 341 (Tex. App.-Texarkana 2000, pet. denied). In addition, section 14.005(b) of the civil practice and remedies code provides that "[a] court shall dismiss a claim if the inmate fails to file the claim before the 31st day after the date the inmate receives the written decision from the grievance system." Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. ...

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