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Barber v. Schmidt

Supreme Court of Alaska

July 31, 2015

JAMES BARBER, Appellant,
v.
JOSEPH SCHMIDT, BRYAN BRANDENBURG, SAM EDWARDS, CARMEN GUTIERREZ, JACK L. EARL, JR., MICHAEL ALEXANDER, ANTHONY GARCIA, SAM WILLIAMS, and TOMMY PATTERSON, Appellees. JACK L. EARL, JR., Appellant,
v.
JOSEPH SCHMIDT, BRYAN BRANDENBURG, SAM EDWARDS, CARMEN GUTIERREZ, MICHAEL ALEXANDER, ANTHONY GARCIA, SAM WILLIAMS, TOMMY PATTERSON, and JAMES BARBER,

Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, No. 3AN-12-07764 CI Third Judicial District, Anchorage, John Suddock, Judge.

Appearances: James Barber, pro se, Wasilla, Appellant. Jack L. Earl, Jr., pro se, Juneau, Appellant.

John K. Bodick, Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Michael C. Geraghty, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellees Joseph Schmidt, Bryan Brandenburg, Sam Edwards, and Carmen Gutierrez.

Before: Fabe, Chief Justice, Winfree, Stowers, Maassen, and Bolger, Justices.

OPINION

STOWERS, Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

Six Alaska prisoners jointly filed a pro se putative class-action complaint against various Department of Corrections officials. Their complaint detailed 18 causes of action, many of which address changes in Department policy regarding inmate purchase and possession of gaming systems and restrictions on mature-rated video games.

One of the prisoners moved for class certification and for appointment of counsel. The superior court denied the class action motion on the grounds that pro se plaintiffs cannot represent a class, and denied the appointment of counsel motion as well. The Department moved for dismissal of the prisoners' complaint for failing to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The superior court granted this motion on the ground that all of the claims were class action claims that could not be pursued.

Two of the plaintiffs, Jack L. Earl, Jr. and James Barber, each filed an appeal. They argue that the superior court erred in denying the motion for class certification, denying the motion for appointment of counsel, and dismissing the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. We consolidated the appeals. We affirm the superior court's denials of class certification and appointment of counsel, but we reverse the dismissal of the action and remand for further proceedings.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

In May 2012 Alaska prisoners Jack L. Earl, Jr., Michael Alexander, Anthony Garcia, Sam Williams, Tommy Patterson, and James Barber, all signing on the same complaint, collectively filed a putative class-action complaint against Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Schmidt and other Department officials.[2] The complaint detailed 18 causes of action, alleging violations of their rights under both the Alaska and United States Constitutions. Many of the alleged violations pertain to changes in Department policy regarding inmate purchase and possession of gaming systems (e.g., Xbox and PlayStation), as well as restrictions on mature-rated video games. The prisoners represented themselves.

Earl moved for class certification under Alaska Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a). He also moved for court-appointed counsel and a temporary restraining order. The Department filed an opposition to the motion for class certification on the grounds that pro se plaintiffs cannot represent a class in a class-action lawsuit and because all of the claims were class-action claims; in the same one-page filing it cross-moved for dismissal of the complaint on the grounds that, absent a certifiable class, it failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Barber and Earl each responded to the Department's opposition to class certification, arguing that it was premature pending resolution of the appointment of counsel motion.

The superior court denied Earl's motion for class certification on the grounds that a pro se plaintiff cannot represent a class in a class-action lawsuit. The court also ruled that there was "no provision in [Alaska] statutes or the Alaska Administrative Code for appointment of counsel to inmates for prison rights litigation." Finally, the court concluded that since the class could not be certified and since there were no claims that were not class-action claims, the plaintiffs had failed to state a claim ...


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