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Smith v. Rayford

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

October 24, 2019

RICHARD SMITH, Appellant,
v.
JODIE RAYFORD, ET AL., Appellees.

          On appeal from the 156th District Court of Bee County, Texas.

          Before Chief Justice Contreras and Justices Hinojosa and Tijerina

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          LETICIA HINOJOSA JUSTICE

         This is an inmate litigation case brought under Chapter 14 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 14.001 et al. By two issues, appellant Richard Smith complains that the trial court abused its discretion by: (1) dismissing his lawsuit against appellees Jodie Rayford, Corey Furr, Garrett Saxon, Cinthia Guzman, Kathryn Gaitan, Nancy Trevino, and James Thompson, all employees of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice; and (2) allowing an assigned judge to preside when Smith objected to the assignment prior to his final hearing. We affirm.

         I. Background

         Smith is an inmate at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice McConnell Unit in Beeville, Texas. In his original petition, Smith alleges that Rayford, an officer at the McConnell Unit, issued a false disciplinary report against him for allegedly threatening her on July 14, 2017. Smith asserted that Rayford's fellow employees-Furr, Saxon, Guzman, Gaitan, Trevino, and Thompson-supported Rayford in her "bogus report" by making "false representations" and "alter[ing] witness statements." He further alleged that they "hid exculpatory evidence" and "alter[ed] the charging instrument." Smith also asserted that nepotism was involved in the incident because Rayford's husband is a warden at the McConnell Unit.

         According to Smith, his "disciplinary case was finally overturned at the Step 2 Grievance level." On December 19, 2017, Smith sued appellees for threat of bodily injury, fraud, breach of contract, respondeat superior, conspiracy, and assisting and encouraging. He cited the grievance decision as proof of his claim. In his original petition, he "object[ed] to the referral of this case to an associate judge for hearing a trial on the merits or presiding at a jury trial." He sought exemplary damages, declaratory relief, and injunctive relief.

         On December 21, 2017, Judge David Peeples, Presiding Judge of the Fourth Administrative Judicial Region of Texas, assigned Senior Judge Joel B. Johnson to preside over this case. Smith then filed "Plaintiff[']s Objection to Assigned Judge and to Recuse [sic]." It was dated January 9, 2018 and postmarked January 10, 2018. He filed another objection on March 21, 2018. The trial court dismissed the case as frivolous on May 31, 2018. The final judgment does not state whether the dismissal is with prejudice. Smith appealed.

         II. Dismissal of Chapter 14 Litigation

         By his first issue, Smith complains that the trial court dismissed his lawsuit against appellees "for failure to comply with Chapter 14 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code."

         A. Standard of Review & Applicable Law

         We review a trial court's dismissal of a claim pursuant to Chapter 14 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code under an abuse of discretion standard. Wanzer v. Garcia, 299 S.W.3d 821, 827 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 2009, pet. denied); see also McCann v. De Hoyos, No. 13-18-00528-CV, 2019 WL 3820427, at *1-2 (Tex. App.- Corpus Christi-Edinburg Aug. 15, 2019, no pet. h.) (mem. op.). The trial court abuses its discretion if it acts arbitrarily, unreasonably, or without reference to any guiding rules and principles. Downer v. Aquamarine Operators, Inc., 701 S.W.3d 238, 241-42 (Tex. 1985). "The mere fact that a trial judge may decide a matter within his discretionary authority in a different manner than an appellate judge in a similar circumstance does not demonstrate that an abuse of discretion has occurred." Id. at 242.

         A trial court may dismiss an inmate's claim as frivolous or malicious under Chapter 14 based on the following factors: the claim's ultimate chance of success; whether the claim has an arguable basis in law or fact; whether it is clear that the party cannot prove facts in support of the claim; or whether the claim is substantially similar to a previous claim filed by the petitioner because it arises from the same operative facts. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 14.003(a)(2), (b)(2). "A claim has no arguable basis in law if it relies upon an indisputably meritless legal theory." Fernandez v. Tex. Dep't of Crim. Justice, 341 S.W.3d 6, 13 (Tex. App.-Waco 2010, no pet.). Dismissal with prejudice is improper if the dismissal is based on procedural defects that the inmate can correct. See id. However, if the claim has no arguable basis in law, then dismissal with prejudice is proper. Id.

         B. ...


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