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Bill would limit some prisoners’ access to courts in certain civil cases

Paula Henry’s husband was murdered in 1995 in Tacoma and Lawrence Shandola, a former business partner, was convicted of Robert Henry’s murder in 2001, sentenced to more than 30 years in prison.

In 2013, Shandola filed a lawsuit, alleging that Paula Henry blocked his request for a transfer to a Canadian prison, therefore causing the inmate “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” Henry had written a letter to the Department of Corrections in 2011, saying that Shandola stalked and intimidated her for five years, and “I know he will kill me.” Shandola is a Canadian national.

“I’m here for the same reason you’re here — to make a difference,” Henry said in testimony before a House Committee last week.

House Bill 2102 would require a criminal convicted of a serious violent offense to seek permission from the court before suing their victim or their victim’s family in civil court. The bill exempts lawsuits under statutes dealing with domestic relations, such as legal separation, domestic violence and child support.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington State opposes the bill. A spokesman said the organization supports everyone’s access to the courts, and the bill is unnecessary because mechanisms already exist to filter out frivolous lawsuits.

Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma, the main sponsor, said the ACLU’s argument doesn’t hold water.

“All the bill does is protect the victim,” he said in an interview.

Henry said she was traumatized when she found out Shandola was suing her. The lawsuit was dismissed without trial in April 2013.

The court granted Henry an award for statutory damages of $10,000, and attorney fees totaling $10,625 against Shandola, since her letter was protected under the law that grants immunity from civil liability “for a person who communicates a complaint or information to any branch or agency of federal, state, or local government.”

“Please don’t allow other people to live through the fear I have,” she said to the committee during testimony.

The circumstances of Henry’s case, in which a convicted criminal sues their victim, is rare. According to the Caseload Forecast Council, a state organization that produces data used by the governor and the Legislature for developing the budget, there were 244 serious violent offenders in 2013 that could potentially be affected by this legislation.

Co-sponsor Rep. Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma, offered an amendment to let the Department of Corrections determine penalties for prisoners who fail to seek a judge’s permission before filing a civil lawsuit against their victim. The bill previously mandated loss of earned early-release time for failure to comply.

David Ward, staff attorney for Legal Voice, said his organization would like to expand the scope of the bill to deal with other “abusive litigation.” Legal Voice is an advocacy group that protects women’s legal rights in the Northwest.

He said Legal Voice wants to prevent convicted criminals from using lawsuits “as a tool where they can continue to control and harass” their victim, and acknowledged that it is a “delicate balance” between preserving access to the courts while protecting crime victims from being victimized again.

“We don’t want to prevent people from going to court with claims that are valid,” Ward said.

Sawyer said he is receptive to bill proposals with a broader scope to protect victims from harassing litigation, but that he wants House Bill 2102 to only address the problem of prisoners seeking to harass their victims through frivolous civil lawsuits.

Members of the House Committee on the Judiciary voted unanimously to move the bill out of committee Tuesday, Jan. 21.

Christopher Lopaze is a reporter with the WNPA Olympia News Service.

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