Tennessee Supreme Court holds that Indigent Prisoner's Case was Properly Dismissed when Prisoner had Outstanding Unpaid Court Costs from Prior Litigation

March 23, 2017

The Tennessee Supreme Court has held that an indigent prisoner’s case was properly dismissed pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 41-21-812 when the prisoner had outstanding unpaid court costs from prior litigation.  Tennessee Code Annotated section 41-21-812 authorizes the rejection of certain new claims in court from an indigent inmate who has unpaid fees, taxes, costs, or expenses from prior lawsuits.

Petitioner Reginald Dion Hughes is an indigent inmate serving an effective sixty-year sentence for two 1987 murder convictions.  When Mr. Hughes was denied parole for the third time, he appealed to the chancery court.  The Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 41-21-812, asserting that Mr. Hughes’s petition should be dismissed because he had outstanding unpaid court costs.  The chancery court granted the motion based on the unpaid fees.  The Court of Appeals also dismissed Mr. Hughes’s appeal pursuant to section 41-21-812 for the same reason.

Mr. Hughes petitioned the Tennessee Supreme Court, arguing that the State had failed to comply with the statutory procedural requirements of section 41-21-812 and that the dismissal of the case due to outstanding fees violated his constitutional rights.

In an analysis that was limited to Tennessee Code Annotated section 41-21-812’s application to Mr. Hughes, the Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed the decisions of the chancery court and the Court of Appeals.  The Court concluded that the State had sufficiently complied with the procedural requirements of section 41-21-812 and that, as applied to Mr. Hughes’s case, section 41-21-812 did not violate the due process or equal protection clauses of the United States or Tennessee Constitutions.  Therefore, the Court determined that section 41-21-812 did not unconstitutionally infringe on Mr. Hughes’s right of access to the courts.

Justice Cornelia A. Clark filed a separate dissenting opinion. Although she did not disagree with the majority’s analysis concerning the constitutionality of the statute, Justice Clark concluded that Tennessee Code Annotated section 41-21-812 was not applicable to Mr. Hughes’ case.  Justice Clark explained that the trial court clerk had failed to forward a copy of the prior order taxing costs against Mr. Hughes in the previous action to the Department of Correction, as was required by another provision of the Act.  She reasoned that had the clerk complied with the statute, the costs likely would have been paid before he filed his petition for writ of certiorari.  Justice Clark would have remanded the case to the trial court for reconsideration of Mr. Hughes’ petition on the merits.

Justice Sharon Lee also dissented from the Court’s decision.  Justice Lee would not have barred Mr. Hughes from access to the courthouse based on a statute that allowed courts to reject inmate lawsuits that were frivolous and malicious.  Justice Lee explained that Mr. Hughes only owed $49.50 in courts costs from a divorce he filed over twenty years ago.  Mr. Hughes had a right to file for divorce and the case was not frivolous or malicious.  She concluded that there was no evidence that the court clerk had followed a statutory procedure for collection of the costs from Mr. Hughes’ inmate trust account.  For these reasons, Justice Lee concluded that the Court’s decision barring Mr. Hughes from having his day in court, based on $49.50 in unpaid court costs that the clerk had not attempted to collect, was a misapplication of the law.

To read the majority opinion in Reginald Dion Hughes v. Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole, authored by Justice Roger A. Page, and the dissenting opinions of Justice Cornelia A. Clark and Justice Sharon G. Lee, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.