Pa. Supreme Court sides with Montco prothonotary in prisoner extraordinary petition case

By Jon Campisi | Jul 11, 2013

In a case that seems to have come full circle, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has

reversed a lower appellate court’s reversal of a trial court’s dismissal of a prison inmate’s writ of mandamus.

In a decision filed on July 9, the high court sided with Mark Levy, the prothonotary of Montgomery County, who had appealed a 2009 Commonwealth Court order reversing an earlier order by the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas that dismissed without prejudice a writ of mandamus that had been file by Alton D. Brown, who is currently serving a state prison sentence of 108 to 216 years.

The Supreme Court ruling states that Brown is known as a “frequent filer of frivolous litigation in the Commonwealth and in federal courts,” and that the basis for the current case was a civil action Brown attempted to file in Montgomery County alleging civil rights violations against numerous courthouse officials.

Levy, the prothonotary, thrice rejected the complaint for failure to provide names and addresses of all of the named defendants, records show.

Brown then filed his writ seeking to compel Levy to accept the complaint.

In Pennsylvania, the prothonotary is the civil court equivalent of a clerk of courts, and is responsible for accepting or rejecting civil actions.

Levy subsequently filed a motion to dismiss under the “three strikes” rule, which allows a court to dismiss an action if three or more of a prisoner’s prior civil cases regarding prison conditions had been dismissed.

A Montgomery County Common Pleas Court judge granted the motion, but that decision was ultimately overturned by the Commonwealth Court, one of two lower-tier state appellate benches.

At issue in this case was whether Brown’s mandamus action constituted prison conditions litigation, and whether or not it would be subject to the “three strikes” rule.

Levy had argued that the mandamus action met the definition because it was a civil action, the prothonotary is a government party, and Levy’s action affects the life of an individual confined to prison.

Brown disagreed, arguing that a writ of mandamus is not prison conditions litigation because they can be filed in both the civil and criminal realm.

Brown also argued that his action “merely concerns the fact that the prothonotary denied him access to the court, and has no effect on his life in prison.”

The high court saw differently, with the justices agreeing with Levy that a petition for writ of mandamus against the prothonotary may constitute prison conditions litigation and is therefore subject to the “three strikes” rule.

The high court noted that mandamus and other extraordinary writs are considered civil actions by the circuit courts when the relief requested is related to a civil action, and are not considered civil actions when the relief requested is related to a criminal matter.

“… Mandamus actions related to underlying civil actions meet the first requirement of the definition of prison conditions litigation,” the Supreme Court ruling states.

Mandamus actions also satisfy the second requirement of prison conditions litigation – that the action must be by a government party, the court wrote.

Lastly, the high court wrote that while it agrees with the Commonwealth Court’s concerns that the prothonotary “lacks authority to interpret statutes, evaluate the merits of a litigant’s pleading, and decline to accept a timely filed document,” in this particular case the mandamus petition is a collateral filing “entirely dependent upon the underlying complaint.”

Levy never evaluated the merits of Brown’s pleading, the high court wrote, but rather the trial court did.

“While the prothonotary’s actions could be viewed as a rejection of a timely-filed complaint, the complaint was only rejected because it was missing some of the defendant’s addresses,” the Supreme Court ruling states. “Had [Brown] complied with the prothonotary’s request to amend his complaint, the prothonotary would have accepted it, as he has in many of [Brown’s] other cases regardless of [Brown’s] status as an unremitting filer of prison conditions litigation.

“[Brown] chose to forego the standards procedures of the court and file a petition for writ of mandamus to force the prothonotary to accept his complaint, even though it was incomplete, rather than properly amend the complaint.”

The justices wrote that it would be a “clear waste of judicial resources” for the high court to demand Levy to accept Brown’s complaint, just so the trial court could dismiss the complaint as prison conditions litigation.

“An individual may not skirt the legislature’s intent to preclude him from filing frivolous litigation merely by filing for an extraordinary writ,” the high court wrote.

In the end, the Supreme Court ruled that the Commonwealth Court improperly reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the prisoner’s petition.

The opinion was written by Justice J. Michael Eakin.

All six justices participated in the decision.

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