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Prison Officials Must Accept Summons by Prisoner in Personal Injury Lawsuit against Another Prisoner

RICHARD J. CRANE, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. JOSEPH CLAY DOLIHITE, Defendant and Respondent. (Cal. Ct. App., Oct. 22, 2021, No. F079877) 2021 WL 4929340, at *1

 Summary: Crane, a prisoner representing himself, appealed  from the dismissal of his personal injury action against an inmate who stabbed him in the neck with a pencil. The dismissal was based on Crane’s failure to serve the summons and complaint on the inmate who stabbed him within the time prescribed by statute. (See Code Civ. Proc., §§ 583.210, subd. (a) [plaintiff must serve a defendant within three years], 583.250.)

Crane was unable to serve the summons and complaint on the prisoner because;  (1) the defendant was transferred to Salinas Valley State Prison in Monterey County; (2) Crane was unable to identify the defendant’s location; (3) the superior court advised Crane to use the sheriff’s office to effect service but, the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office refused to serve the summons and complaint; and (4) the litigation coordinator at Salinas Valley State Prison refused to accept service on behalf of the defendant inmate. The litigation coordinator’s refusal is contrary to  Penal Code section 4013, subdivision (a) and Code of Civil Procedure section 416.90, which have been interpreted as authorizing litigation coordinators at state prisons to accept service on behalf of inmates. (Sakaguchi v. Sakaguchi (2009) 173 Cal.App.4th 852, 858–859 (Sakaguchi).)

On appeal, Crane contends the acts and omissions of prison officials and others denied his right to meaningful access to the courts. The record on appeal demonstrates Crane’s statutory right to initiate and prosecute a civil action (Pen. Code, § 2601, subd. (d))  was infringed. Acts by officials frustrated Crane’s attempts to serve his civil action on the defendant inmate and that the dismissal of the nonfrivolous action caused a miscarriage of justice.  Crane’s statutory right of access to the courts was denied.

The Court of Appeal reversed the judgment and remanded for further proceedings.

Facts: Crane was studying at a computer in a general education at  the High Desert State Prison in Lassen County. Crane was attempting to obtain a GED certificate.  Dolihite approached Crane from behind and stabbed him in the neck with a pencil. The pencil broke off in Crane’s neck on the second thrust. Dolihite then began punching Crane in the head and back. The instructor sounded an alarm and correctional officers responded.

In June 2013, the Lassen County District Attorney filed a criminal complaint against Dolihite charging him with attempted murder and alleging he had been convicted of serious or violent felonies in 1983, 1994 and 2000. In October 2013, Dolihite plead guilty to assault with a deadly weapon by a state prisoner in violation of Penal Code section 4501. He was sentenced to a total of eight years.

In June 2014, Crane filed a personal injury complaint against Dolihite in Kings County Superior Court.

Access to the Courts by prisoners

Measures to ensure indigent prisoners are afforded meaningful access to the courts include “(1) deferral of the action until the prisoner is released; (2) appointment of counsel for the prisoner; (3) transfer of the prisoner to court to attend hearings or the trial; (4) utilization of depositions in lieu of personal appearances; (5) holding of trial in prison; (6) conducting status and settlement conferences, hearings on motions and other pretrial proceedings by telephone; (7) propounding of written discovery; and (8) use of closed circuit television or other modern electronic media.” (Smith, supra, 38 Cal.App.5th at p. 467, italics omitted.) In addition, trial courts may implement other innovative, imaginative procedures. (Ibid.)  When deciding the appropriate measure or measures to assure access, the relevant circumstances include the practicality and effectiveness of the various measures available to protect the prisoner’s right of access to the courts. (Smith, supra, at p. 467.)

Service of Process

Service of process on a defendant  important in obtaining access to the remedies available through the court system. The “formal service of process performs two important functions.” (Rockefeller Technology Investments (Asia) VII v. Changzhou SinoType Technology Co., Ltd. (2020) 9 Cal.5th 125, 139.) First, from the court’s perspective, service of process asserts jurisdiction over the person. (Ibid.) Obtaining personal jurisdiction is important because a trial court can enter a valid judgment only if it has both jurisdiction of the person and jurisdiction of the subject matter. (Id. at p. 138.) Second, from a defendant’s perspective, service of process provides notice of the pending action and gives the defendant an opportunity to present a defense. (Id. at p. 139.) Thus, service of process protects a defendant’s due process right to defend against an action by providing constitutionally adequate notice of the court proceeding. (Ibid.)

CDCR and Service of Process

Section 14010.7 of the Department Operations Manual (2021) of CDCR (DOM) states: “Service of any documents used in civil proceedings (except subpoenas) is referred to as service of legal process in this section. The documents shall be handled in accordance with the provisions of this section anytime an employee receives such service.” Service of legal process upon inmates is addressed in section 14010.7.4 of the DOM, which states that it does “not preclude the proper service of papers by a sworn peace officer escorted into a security area.” (Ibid.) Section 14010.7.4 of the DOM also sets forth ways service on the inmate may be completed. First, “[s]taff may accept the papers from the process server and then complete the service on the inmate.” (Ibid.) Second, “[a] sworn peace officer may be escorted into the security area to complete service of the papers.” (Ibid.) In addition, “[i]f a request for service is received by mail, institution staff shall serve the papers and complete the verification of service. If a fee accompanied the request for service, the fee shall be returned with the verification of service.” (Ibid.) Regardless of whether a litigation coordinator is physically handed process as a someone authorized by law to accept service on behalf of an inmate or is served by mail pursuant to section 415.30, the litigation coordinator has a duty to “forthwith deliver [the papers] to the prisoner, with a note thereon of the time of its service.” (Pen. Code, § 4013, subd. (a).)

Denial of Crane’s Right Of Access to The Courts

A prisoner must show (1) official acts frustrating the litigation and (2) an actual injury that satisfies the standard used in civil cases for a miscarriage of justice. To demonstrate actual injury, the prison must show the loss or impairment of a nonfrivolous cause of action. (Christopher v. Harbury, supra, at p. 416.) To establish a miscarriage of justice, the prisoner must show it is reasonably probable that a result more favorable to him or her would have been reached in the absence of the denial of access. (See Soule v. General Motors Corp. (1994) 8 Cal.4th 548, 574.)

The  violation of an indigent prisoner’s statutory right of access pursuant to Penal Code section 2601, subdivision (d) affects the calculation of the three-year period for service of process. Section 583.210, subdivision (a) requires a plaintiff to serve “a defendant within three years after the action is commenced against the defendant.” A lawsuit “is commenced” when the complaint is filed. (Ibid.)

The calculation of the three-year period is subject to section 583.240, which lists four conditions that result in the exclusion of time from the three-year period. Tme is excluded when “[t]he prosecution of the action or proceedings in the action was stayed and the stay affected service.” (§ 583.240, subd. (b).) Second, time is excluded if “[s]ervice … was impossible, impracticable, or futile due to causes beyond the plaintiff’s control.” (§ 583.240, subd. (d)). Ordinarily, these conditions “must be construed strictly against the plaintiff.” (Shipley v. Sugita (1996) 50 Cal.App.4th 320, 326.) However, when an indigent prisoner establishes a denial of his statutory right of access to the courts,  a strict construction is inappropriate. The statutory right of access to the courts, which has constitutional foundations, is more important that the procedural requirement established for the efficient operation of the courts. The statutory time limits for service should be construed to protect rather than deny the right of access. The time during which official acts frustrated the service of process and denied an indigent prisoner his statutory right of access to the courts qualifies as time during which service was “impracticable[ ] or futile due to causes beyond the plaintiff’s control.” (§ 583.240, subd. (d).)

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