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Grethen v. Robinson

Supreme Court of Virginia

November 22, 2017

MARK A. GRETHEN
v.
ARNOLD DAVID ROBINSON, CHIEF OF CORRECTIONS OPERATIONS, VIRGINIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, ET AL.

         FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE CITY OF CHESAPEAKE John W. Brown, Judge

          PRESENT: Lemons, C.J., Goodwyn, Mims, McClanahan, Powell, and McCullough, JJ., and Koontz, S.J.

          OPINION

          STEPHEN R. McCULLOUGH JUSTICE

         Mark A. Grethen, an inmate, challenges the trial court's determination that he could not proceed in forma pauperis with his petition for a writ of mandamus. We conclude that he should have been afforded in forma pauperis status under Code § 8.01-691 and, accordingly, we will reverse the trial court's judgment.

         BACKGROUND

         Grethen is an inmate in the Virginia Department of Corrections ("the Department") - as well as a prolific litigator. On June 23, 2016, he filed a petition for a writ of mandamus in the Circuit Court for the City of Chesapeake, complaining of lack of access to computers, an inadequate legal database, and denial of photocopy services. He sought to file his mandamus petition in forma pauperis, that is, without paying the filing fee that ordinarily must be paid to institute a case. He submitted an affidavit in forma pauperis averring that he had no available funds with which to pay the fee.

         Consistent with Code § 8.01-691, Grethen attached several documents to his petition that detailed the history of his inmate trust account. A "Trust Certificate of Account History" generated by the Department showed "total deposits" of $25.14 and "total withdrawals" of $25.14 for the period beginning on February 12, 2016, and ending on May 17, 2016. The same documents showed a zero balance at the end of each month, as well as an "average monthly balance" of zero dollars. Another Trust Certificate of Account History for the period of February 1, 2015, to February 1, 2016, showed "total deposits" of $183.37 and "total withdrawals" of $183.39, along with a zero balance at the end of each month and an "average monthly balance" of zero dollars. His "offender monthly trust statements" showed postage loans for legal mail, loans for "medical co-pay, " and loans for legal photocopies. Grethen also filed with the court a "Response to Trust Certificate of Account History, " arguing that the trust account statements generated by the Department inaccurately reflected his financial resources.

         The court denied Grethen's request to proceed in forma pauperis, holding that Grethen had to pay the filing and services fees or the action would be dismissed without prejudice. This appeal followed.

         ANALYSIS

         Code § 8.01-691 provides in relevant part:

A prisoner seeking in forma pauperis status shall provide the court with a certified copy of his inmate trust account for the preceding twelve months. . . . If the court determines the prisoner has had no deposits in his inmate trust account for the preceding six months, the court shall permit the prisoner to proceed without paying the filing fee and costs.

         We review a trial court's interpretation of a statute de novo. Conyers v. Martial Arts World of Richmond, Inc., 273 Va. 96, 104, 639 S.E.2d 174, 178 (2007).

         I. The Department's policies and procedures explain the "loans" and "deposits" that appear on inmate trust account documentation.

         Grethen, who was seeking in forma pauperis status, "provide[d] the court with a certified copy of his inmate trust account for the preceding twelve months." Code § 8.01-691. The statements from his trust accounts reflect "deposits" and "loans" but also show a zero balance from month to month. The Virginia Department of Corrections' Operating Procedure governing offender finances explains what these "deposits" and "loans" mean. See Virginia ...


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