Garrett v. Borden, No. 08-0506 (Tex. May 1, 2009)(per curiam opinion)(prisoner inmate
litigation, statutory construction, defining the word "copy")(sufficiency of verbatim transcription of
prison grievance decision by hand instead of photocopy)(exhaustion of administrative remedies)
MICHAEL LOU GARRETT v. JACK M. BORDEN, ET AL.; from Potter County;
7th district (07-07-00163-CV, ___ SW3d ___, 05-29-08)
Pursuant to Texas Rule of Appellate Procedure 59.1, after granting the petition for review and without
hearing oral argument, the Court reverses the court of appeals' judgment and remands the case to
the trial court.
Per Curiam Opinion. [pdf version link here]
COMMENT: Who said only big business and government defendants win in the Texas Supreme
Court? Supremes issues another procedural mercy ruling in prisoner's pro se suit. (JCB)
Garrett vs. Borden, 283 S.W.3d 852 (Tex. 2009)(per curiam opinion)
Section 14.005 of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code provides that an inmate, who files
a grievance claim subject to section 501.008 of the Government Code, must file with the
court “a copy of the written decision from the grievance system.” See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem.
Code § 14.005(a)(2).
At issue in this appeal is the meaning of the word “copy.”
The trial court concluded that copy means only photocopy and dismissed the inmate’s
grievance claim because he filed a hand-typed, verbatim copy instead. The court of appeals
affirmed the dismissal in a memorandum opinion, with one justice dissenting. 2008 Tex.
App. LEXIS 3955, 2008 WL 2221807. Because we conclude that a hand-typed, verbatim
reproduction satisfies the statutory requirement for a copy of the written grievance decision,
we reverse the court of appeals’ judgment and remand the case to the trial court.
Chapter 14 of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code applies to lawsuits filed by inmates
who assert an inability to pay costs. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 14.002(a).
Because the inmate’s lawsuit here was also one subject to the grievance system established
under the Government Code, the inmate was required to exhaust his administrative
remedies and demonstrate that to the court by providing “a copy of the written decision from
the grievance system” together with the inmate’s declaration or affidavit disclosing the date
he filed the grievance, and the date he received the written decision. See id. § 14.005(a).
Rather than file a photocopy of the written decision, the inmate reproduced it manually. No
one disputes that the hand-typed reproduction is a verbatim copy.
Unless given a specific statutory definition, courts generally accept the words used in a
statute according to their ordinary meaning. Cities of Austin, Dallas, Ft. Worth & Hereford v.
Sw. Bell Tel. Co., 92 S.W.3d 434, 442 (Tex. 2002). Chapter 14 does not define the word
“copy,” and thus we apply its ordinary or common meaning here. That meaning includes a
hand-typed, verbatim reproduction. See Webster’s New International Dictionary 504 (3rd ed.
2002) (defining “copy” as “an imitation, transcript, or reproduction of an original work”).
The court of appeals, however, chose a more restrictive definition, interpreting the word
“copy” to mean only mechanical reproductions or photocopies. Under certain circumstances,
a court may reject the ordinary meaning of an undefined term, such as when a different
meaning is apparent from the context or when the statute’s purpose indicates a more
specific meaning was intended. City of Rockwall v. Hughes, 246 S.W.3d 621, 625-26 (Tex.
2008). Neither instance is apparent here. Section 14.005(a)(2)’s purpose is to demonstrate
that an inmate, proceeding in forma pauperis, has exhausted his or her administrative
remedies through the TDCJ’s grievance system by providing certain information to the court,
including a copy of the written decision from the grievance system. See Smith v. Tex. Dep’t
of Criminal Justice - Inst. Div., 33 S.W.3d 338, 341. (Tex. App.—Texarkana 2000, pet.
denied). A hand-typed, verbatim reproduction of the written decision will not frustrate this
purpose and accordingly satisfies the statutory requirement.
Statutory construction is a question of law we review de novo. Tex. Parks and Wildlife Dep’t
v. Shumake, 199 S.W.3d 279, 284. (Tex. 2006). Because the court of appeals erred in
construing the word “copy” in section 14.005(a)(2) to mean photocopies only and in
dismissing the inmate’s claim based upon that erroneous construction, we grant the petition
for review and, without hearing oral argument, reverse the court of appeals’ judgment and
remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings. See Tex. R. App. P. 59.1.
OPINION ISSUED: May 1, 2009