A Remedial Lesson on Writ Remedies

In Cox v. Superior Court, C080870, the Third District today filed an interesting, short opinion explaining the difference between civil and criminal remedies for incarcerated litigants.  Mr. Cox, apparently unhappy about conditions of his confinement, filed a civil complaint against officials and employees of the California Department of Corrections, seeking damages for various torts.  However, the “superior court struck the civil complaint and ordered it refilled as a habeas corpus petition,” which it denied shortly thereafter.

Cox then filed a petition for writ of mandate in the Court of Appeal, “seeking to compel respondent superior court to reverse its orders striking his civil complaint and denying the putative habeas corpus petition.”  Interestingly, the Attorney General agreed the trial court had “erred in deeming the civil complaint to be a habeas corpus petition.”  The reviewing court agreed, issuing writ relief.

The Court first explained important differences between an order dismissing a civil action, which is an appealable judgment, and an order denying a habeas corpus petition, which is not appealable.  It also explained that, although a court may treat a petition for one type of writ relief as a petition for a different type, it may not treat a civil complaint as a writ petition, even if the court’s goals ostensibly were “laudable,” here relieving Cox of various technical requirements of civil litigation.  Importantly, damages are recoverable only in a civil action, not a habeas corpus petition, so by treating the complaint as a habeas petition, the trial court had foreclosed Cox from obtaining the remedies he sought.  Not everything filed by an incarcerated person is a “habeas petition,” as incarcerated persons retain the right to initiate civil actions, presumably much to the bane of court clerks everywhere.

Read the opinion:

http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/C080870.PDF