Okla. Lawmakers Vote to Restrict Inmate Lawsuits

May 4, 2005

Legislation that would make it difficult for convicts to file frivolous lawsuits passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives, the House Media Division reported.

House Bill 1623, by State Rep. Mike Wilt, would clarify state law to discourage inmates from filing frivolous lawsuits.

The bill, which now awaits Gov. Brad Henry’s signature, is the third such measure approved in the past four years.

“I’m pleased this has received such overwhelming, bipartisan support,” said Rep. Wilt, R-Bartlesville. “I hope this effort does as much to end legal abuse as my previous two bills. We’ve had a lot of success in decreasing the number of inmate lawsuits filed in Oklahoma.”

He noted previous efforts slashed frivolous filings by 71 percent. In 2001, Rep. Wilt said the problem was “getting out of hand” and there were 350 inmate lawsuits filed in Oklahoma. By 2004, the number had plummeted to 100.

Richard Kirby, deputy director and general counsel for the Department of Corrections, said inmates were filing lawsuits for an astounding list of alleged wrongs.

“We had one inmate who sued the state because he wanted to wear women’s underwear,” Kirby said.

Other convicts have sued the state claiming they should be allowed to baptize themselves, while others claimed their religious beliefs required them to be fed steak and shrimp every night, Kirby said.

The reforms passed in the last four years allowed sanctions to be imposed on convicts who file frivolous lawsuits. In addition, the law now allows for administrative proceedings that prevent disputes from ever reaching the courtroom.

State law also requires inmates to pay all court costs upfront if an inmate has filed several lawsuits that were deemed frivolous and thrown out of court in the past.

“We want inmates to have to go through the same cost-benefit analysis that John Q. Citizen has to make before filing a lawsuit,” Kirby said.

House Bill 1623 builds on past reform efforts by giving inmates only one year to file lawsuits related to their incarceration.

The legislation also requires inmates to exhaust all administrative remedies in all claims against the state before an appeal will be granted.

The measure was amended in the Oklahoma Senate to ensure the bill complies with a recent 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling.

In its amended form, House Bill 1623 passed the Oklahoma Senate on a 46-0 vote. The bill cleared the House on Tuesday on a 93-5 vote and is now headed to the governor’s desk.

Rep. Wilt is confident the bill will be signed into law.

“This concept has been endorsed by both Republican and Democrat governors and it seems to be working,” he said.

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