§41.8 Stay of Litigation Pending Plaintiff’s Release From Jail

The Case: Logan v. Winstead , 23 S.W.3d 297 (Tenn. 2000).

The Basic Facts: Plaintiff was inmate convicted on drug-related charges. Plaintiff brought a malpractice suit against his defense attorney after his conviction and sought a stay of the proceedings while he served his sentence.

The Bottom Line:

  • "We granted review to determine under what circumstances an incarcerated plaintiff is entitled to have a civil action held in abeyance until he or she is released from custody." 23 S.W.3d at 299.
  • "Instead, we hold that the decision of whether or not to stay civil proceedings for a prisoner is left to the discretion of the trial court. Acting on a case-by-case basis, the trial court must weigh the competing interests of the inmate's ability to present proof and the burden on the judicial system and the defendant in continuing the action. In reviewing a trial court's ruling on a motion for abeyance, appellate courts should employ an abuse of discretion standard of review. See Sanjines v. Ortwein, 984 S.W.2d at 909." Id. at 302.
  • "One of the main factors to be considered by the trial court in considering a motion for abeyance is whether the inmate will be released from prison and able to appear in court within a reasonable amount of time from the filing of the suit. This determination will unmistakably vary from one case to the next. Besides the length of the prisoner's remaining sentence, other countervailing interests should be considered by the court, including the burden on the court in maintaining a docket on which such claims will remain for an extended period, and the inconvenience and impracticability of litigating a suit several years after its filing. Not only will prisoners have a more difficult time presenting proof if their cases are held in abeyance, but defendants have a right to have claims against them timely adjudicated. The longer a suit is held in abeyance, the more difficult it will be to try on its merits. Witnesses may move or pass away, memories will fade, and proof will become harder to obtain. It is in everyone's best interest - the court's, plaintiff's, and defendant's - to require the incarcerated litigant's suit to proceed, when reasonable under the circumstances. However we hasten to add that when a trial court denies a prisoner's request for an abeyance, it should, within its discretion, afford the prisoner sufficient time for filing briefs and motions and for conducting discovery. This is especially true when inmates are proceeding pro se. Trial courts should waive the time requirements of the Rules of Civil Procedure and set reasonable time restrictions in such instances.
  • Many suits can be adjudicated on the pleadings. Motions to dismiss, motions for summary judgment, and other such pre-trial matters can be litigated by an inmate in custody. We recognize, as Mr. Logan points out, that a prisoner filing or rebutting a motion for summary judgment supported by an expert affidavit might have a more difficult task in obtaining an expert affidavit than would a litigant who is not incarcerated. In such instances trial courts should grant additional time to prisoners to prepare relevant filings, as the circumstances of the case direct. Nonetheless, we are of the opinion that an incarcerated litigant, acting pro se or having the benefit of an attorney, can prepare and support pre-trial motions. With the discretion of the trial court in granting necessary extensions of time, prisoners should be able to proceed in accordance with the Rules of Civil Procedure.
  • Moreover, requiring incarcerated plaintiffs to prosecute civil claims will serve to eliminate the many frivolous actions by inmates that burden the court system. In order to spare defendants, potential witnesses and the courts the burden of having prisoners' civil actions held in abeyance for years, trial courts should be permitted to dispose of frivolous suits via pre-trial motions." Id. at 302-03.

Other Sources of Note: Bell v. Todd , 206 S.W.3d 86, 94 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005) (holding that a standard similar to that which was applied in Logan to be employed to determine whether or not to grant Mr. Todd's motion to stay the civil proceedings pending the completion of his criminal trial).

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The foregoing is an excerpt from Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law, published by John A. Day, Civil Trial Specialist, Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, recipient of Best Lawyers in America recognition, Martindale-Hubbell AV® Preeminent™ rated attorney, and Top 100 Tennessee Mid-South Super Lawyers designee. Read John’s full bio here.

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