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Robbins v. Anderson

Court of Appeals of Georgia, First Division

June 4, 2018

ROBBINS
v.
ANDERSON et al.

          BARNES, P. J., MCMILLIAN and REESE, JJ.

          Reese, Judge

         Proceeding pro se, indigent prison inmate Marquise Robbins sought to file a civil action in the Superior Court of Tattnall County against James Anderson and Robert Toole[1] for damages based upon their failure to provide sufficient food to, and for not meeting the basic nutritional needs of, inmates in the Segregation Housing Unit ("SHU") at Georgia State Prison ("GSP"). In an order, the trial court stated that his pleading failed to state a cause of action and denied his request to proceed on the complaint. This appeal followed. For the reasons set forth infra, we reverse the trial court's order and remand this case with direction to the superior court clerk to file the complaint.

         The record shows that the Appellant, who was incarcerated at GSP from June through December 2014, filed a pro se "Inmate Form for Civil Action, " alleging that the inmates housed in the SHU of GSP were "unjustifiably deprived of the basic necessity of adequate food to sustain their health, " in violation of OCGA § 42-5-2 (a), [2] and their civil rights under 42 USC § 1983.[3] Specifically the Appellant alleged that, inter alia, from July through October 2014, Warden Toole and Anderson allowed the following conditions to persist unabated in the SHU of GSP, despite actual notice of the problems: inmates were provided with inadequate food portions, spoiled food, and food that had been improperly "watered down;" meals lacked sufficient nutritional and caloric value to qualify as a "wholesome meal;" food preparers and servers failed to ensure that "hot" meals were at least 140 degrees, and "hot" meals were "continuously" served cold; and food service workers were not given proper training in safe food preparation techniques and how to determine correct portion sizes. According to the complaint, these "hazardous and extreme food conditions" posed a "substantial risk of serious harm to inmates' health and safety."

         The Appellant asserted that, as a result of these conditions, he suffered, inter alia, headaches, severe stomach pain, dizziness, constant fatigue, and weakness in his extremities. He also complained that, due to his incarceration in the SHU, he had no opportunity for relief from these hazardous conditions. The complaint asserted that the Appellees' acts and omissions in allowing the unsafe conditions to persist violated the Department of Corrections' standard operating procedures and dietary guidelines, as well as state statutes.[4] The Appellant also asserted a civil rights claim under 42 USC § 1983, alleging that the conditions violated his Eighth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution in that they constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

         According to the complaint, the Appellant filed a grievance with prison officials, but "the issue[s] [were] never rectified.[.]" The trial court denied the filing of the complaint, pursuant to OCGA § 9-15-2 (d), [5] ruling that "the pleading shows on its face such a complete absence of justiciable issue of law or fact that it cannot reasonably be believed that any court could grant the requested relief against any defendant named in the proceedings." This appeal followed.

         When reviewing on appeal from an order denying the filing of an indigent inmate's pro se complaint, we view the complaint with "considerable indulgence, and a complaint should not be dismissed without filing unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to some relief."[6] With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to the Appellant's specific claim of error.

         The Appellant argues that the trial court erred in denying the filing of his civil action under OCGA § 9-15-2 (d). We agree.

         Prior to allowing an indigent plaintiff to file a complaint, under OCGA § 9-15-2 (d), the trial court must first determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint state a claim for relief for which the plaintiff may recover.[7] "The [trial] court can deny filing only if the pleading is completely devoid of any justiciable issue of law or fact. A complaint is sufficient if it places the defendant on notice of the claim against him[.]"[8]

         The record is silent as to the reasons the trial court concluded the Appellant's complaint did not meet the threshold requirements of OCGA § 9-15-2 (d). Construing the allegations of the Appellant's complaint in the light most favorable to him, [9] we find that the complaint stated justiciable claims against the Appellees based on their alleged failure to provide him with adequate, nutritional, and safely prepared food, as required by state law and the Department of Corrections policies.[10] The complaint was also adequate to assert a claim for violations of the Appellant's civil rights under 42 USC § 1983.[11] Although we express no opinion as to the merits of the Appellant's claims, we find that the trial court erred in refusing to file his complaint.[12]

         The Appellees argue, however, that the complaint must be dismissed because the Appellant failed to provide proper notice of his claims under the Georgia Tort Claims Act, i. e., he did not attach the required ante litem notice and delivery receipts to his complaint. This argument is premature.

         Pursuant to OCGA § 50-21-26 (a) (2), "no person who has a tort claim against the state may bring an action against the state on that claim without first giving notice[.]"[13] Yet, the lack of proper notice does not prevent filing of the complaint under OCGA § 9-15-2 (d) because the complaint may be amended after filing to include the ante litem notice certification.[14]

         The Appellees also contend that the trial court properly refused to file the Appellant's federal civil rights claim because the Appellant had previously filed a federal lawsuit asserting the same claim and as a result, the instant claim was barred by res judicata. Although the Appellant appears to concede that he filed a federal lawsuit "dealing with the same facts, " the Appellees are not yet parties to the suit, so their assertion of the affirmative defense of res judicata does not authorize the court's refusal to file the instant suit.[15]

         Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's order. On remand, the clerk of the Superior Court of Tattnall County is directed ...


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