Rash of lawsuits by Texas inmates appears on wane

By Andrea Ball
American-Statesman Staff
Wednesday, August 1, 2001

David Lauer shuffles through the courtroom in prison blues and leg shackles and prepares his case.

The accused murderer, who has filed six lawsuits against the Travis County sheriff's office, pulls legal papers out of a wrinkled paper bag. He talks to the officers scrutinizing his every move. And he waits for his chance to address the judge.

Lauer is among the thousands of Texas prisoners who file lawsuits from jail each year. While prisoner advocates applaud that court access, critics say most inmate complaints are frivolous, expensive blemishes on the court system. The public outcry against prisoner petitions grew so loud in the mid-1990s that both Texas and the federal government passed laws to discourage such lawsuits.

Those laws seem to be working.

Laws passed, lawsuits dropped
State and county prisoner complaints make up the vast majority of lawsuits filed in U.S. district courts nationwide. Texas passed a law to discourage frivolous inmate lawsuits in 1995, and the federal government passed a similar law in 1996

Lawsuits filed, 1977-2000:

Sources: Prison Advocacy Reform Center and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Austin American-Statesman

Between 1995 and 2000, the number of county and state prisoners who filed petitions in U.S. district courts in Texas fell 14 percent, according to federal statistics analyzed by the Austin American-Statesman. The state does not keep track of inmate lawsuits, but the Texas attorney general's office says the number of such cases it has handled has dropped 53 percent.

Court watchers say the decrease is saving taxpayers untold thousands of dollars each year.

"This is very exciting," said Tina Bruno, executive director of Central Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse. "That means my tax dollars can go to other things besides filing responses to frivolous lawsuits that have absolutely no business being filed in the first place."

But Will Harrell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, says that the new laws unfairly erode prisoners' constitutional rights. "That's nothing to be excited about, from our point of view," Harrell said.

Behind bars or not, all Americans have rights.

Prisoners are guaranteed constitutional and civil rights including freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from racial discrimination, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, and, of course, the right of access to the courts.

That court access has been tested -- and protected -- over the years. In 1941, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a regulation in Michigan that forced state inmates to submit all legal documents to prison officials for approval. In 1977, another Supreme Court decision led to the establishment of law libraries in most major U.S. prisons.

So, armed with plenty of books and plenty of time, inmates filed masses of lawsuits. In 1977, nearly 15,000 state prisoners across the country sued in federal courts. By 2000, that number had jumped to 46,000. Their targets: sheriffs, judges, prison guards, court clerks, the president, Congress and anyone else imaginable.

Texas inmate suits
Since 1995, Texas' prison population has steadily climbed, but the number of lawsuits filed per 1,000 prisoners has decreased by 14 percent as Texas and the federal government passed laws targeting lawsuits.

Number of lawsuits filed in federal courts by Texas prisoners per 1,000 inmates 1995-2000*

1995 43
1996 54
1997 49
1998 41
1999 37
2000 37

*Does not include federal prisoners.
Source: Texas Department of Crminal Justice

Austin American-Statesman

"They're sitting around with nothing to do," said Maj. David Balagia, chief of corrections for Travis County jails. "They like using their heads. They're certainly not going to go out and get a job. So they file lawsuits."

Ruiz the reformer
Some of those lawsuits have sparked sweeping reforms. The most notable in Texas: Ruiz v. W.J. Estelle.

In 1972, Texas inmate David Ruiz claimed that prison conditions were so brutal they amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. A federal judge agreed. The state eventually spent billions of dollars to make prisons safer and less crowded.

"What has been accomplished over the last 20 years is astonishing," said Allen Breed, a national criminal justice consultant who testified against the state in the Ruiz case. "It never would have happened in Texas, never, if there hadn't been the Ruiz litigation."

Yet such cases are rare. More than 90 percent of lawsuits are dismissed or settled before they get to trial, according to the National Center for State Courts. Most of them challenge prison sentences, jail conditions, even state or federal laws.

But it's the outrageous ones that snare the spotlight: the inmate who sued because guards allowed aliens to visit his cell; the prisoner who claimed physical and emotional pain when the light bulb blew out in his cell; or the man who sued Penthouse magazine because Clinton foe Paula Jones wasn't naked enough in her pictorial.

David Lauer turns to U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks and says he fears for his life.

He is a convicted sex offender, he tells the judge on this day in late July. He's accused of killing a young woman. He says other inmates have threatened to kill him.

Lauer asks Sparks to approve an injunction that would force county jailers to keep him away from other inmates, claiming he is in imminent danger.

He tells his story quickly and flushes so scarlet that his scalp glows under his blondish buzz cut. He says other inmates have not beaten or harmed him, but he worries that they could.

"They also may be able to take their shirts off, say `Shazam' and fly away," Sparks says. "I'm asking you what they are doing now."

Six Travis County employees sit in the courtroom to respond to Lauer's complaints. A federal court clerk, court reporter and law clerk take notes.

A public backlash
It takes time, money and personnel to conduct such hearings. And by the mid-1990s, public outrage over the issue had peaked.

"We're paying for their lawyer, their time in court, their transportation, everything," said Bruno, of Central Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse.

New legislation allows judges to deem a lawsuit frivolous before the defendants are even served with court papers. They can also punish inmates for filing such litigation.

In 1995, Texas passed a law that takes good-time credits away from prisoners who file more than one frivolous lawsuit. The first offense costs a prisoner 60 days; the second, 120 days; the third, 180 days.

The federal Prisoner Litigation Reform Act, passed in 1996, requires an inmate to pay at least a portion of the $150 court filing fee for his lawsuit, and prisoners who in a judge's opinion have filed three frivolous cases must pay the full fee.

Those laws appear to be working in Texas.

In 1995, 43 lawsuits per 1,000 inmates were filed in federal courts in Texas by state and county prisoners. By 2000, that number had dropped to 37 per 1,000 inmates, a 14 percent decrease.

Meanwhile, the Texas attorney general's office opened 53 percent fewer inmate cases between 1995 and 2000.

Although officials have not determined how much money has been saved, an evidentiary hearing for an inmate case costs the state $1,659, and a trial costs $2,994, according to state estimates.

Yet state officials are not imposing sanctions in most inmate cases. Out of more than 30,000 state prisoner lawsuits filed since 1996, 122 have been deemed frivolous.

Harrell of the ACLU says the state and federal laws are unfair because inmates should have the same access to the courts as other Americans.

Prison administrators "just want to discourage prisoners from exercising their rights because then they'd have to deal with the problems," Harrell said. "There's an almost therapeutic aspect to prison lawsuits. It's empowering. And that's the last thing a prison administrator wants: empowered prisoners."

Harrell says the ACLU receives 600 to 700 letters each month from Texas inmates complaining about everything from excessive force to poor medical treatment.

Judging complaints
Carl Reynolds, general counsel of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, says that most of these cases are legally frivolous: They have no basis in law, no supporting evidence, no real standing to be in a courtroom.

But Harrell said inmates have to file lawsuits because the prison grievance system, an internal program run by administrators, does not work. "It's a paper tiger," he said. "Their decisions depend completely on the political will of administrators."

Reynolds disagrees.

"It's certainly not set up to be a sham," he said. "But there is a lot of volume, and most complaints are denied, so it's hard to convince inmates that it's a real procedure."

Inmates don't always stop at one lawsuit. Lauer, for instance, has six pending petitions against the Travis County sheriff's office, complaining about everything from insufficient meal portions to civil rights violations.

But at his recent hearing, the only issue is whether Lauer is in immediate danger.

Throughout the 90-minute hearing, Lauer is polite and well-spoken. He cross-examines a witness. He barely flinches when the opposing attorney scrutinizes his psychiatric record and need for mood-altering medication.

And he doesn't make a sound when Sparks rules against him. He merely stuffs his thick manila envelopes of documents back into a brown paper bag and quietly follows the officers out of the courtroom.

After all, chances are, he'll be back.

You may contact Andrea Ball at aball@statesman.com or 912-2506