Jail-house 'lawyer' practices prolifically He gets day in court on a monthly basis

January 25, 1998|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF

Frankie L. McCoy gets a break from his 60-year prison sentence about twice a month when one of the scores of civil lawsuits he has filed or helped other inmates to file earns him a trip to court.

As a self-styled jail-house lawyer, the Jessup inmate has been successful enough -- winning a few judgments and reaching cash settlements -- to become a small-time philanthropist.

For some court officials, McCoy is a prime example of prisoner lawsuits getting out of hand. To others, his success points out that some claims by prisoners are legitimate.

"He's a jail-house supreme court justice," Baltimore City Circuit Judge Richard T. Rombro said jokingly of the prolific filer and appealer.

On a roll in 1992 and 1993, McCoy filed at least 11 lawsuits in state and federal courts claiming prison health officials were neglecting his medical treatment. One of the lawsuits claimed that Prison Health Services "failed to remove a painful buildup of plaque and tartar on his teeth," according to a 1993 U.S. District Court ruling denying McCoy's appeal in five cases.

In 1995, Rombro ordered that each of McCoy's requests for waiver of court fees be screened because he had filed so many cases. A high number of frivolous filings can clog the court system and delay legitimate inmate grievances, Rombro said.

"I think he files these things so he can get a day out," Rombro said.

But some of McCoy's claims have been legitimate, according to Stephen Z. Meehan, deputy principal counsel with Prisoner Rights Information System of Maryland (PRISM). Under a federal mandate that states must provide prisoners access to courts, Maryland pays the Chestertown organization to help inmates with claims of civil rights violations and sentence calculation problems.

"Frankie's got some good cases," Meehan said. "He's actually been quite successful.

McCoy, in prison for shooting his then-wife and mother-in-law in West Baltimore in 1983, said civil suits are his way of asserting his rights and doing something constructive in jail.

"I don't file frivolous cases," he contends. "I consider myself a man who is educated and is fighting back for what's right."

The public has sometimes been outraged by the civil rights and tort suits prisoners have filed, often free of charge.

There is the infamous case of a California inmate who sued the prison system because officials there gave him smooth peanut butter instead of chunky. Maryland and other states have cracked down on the waiver of court filing fees. And the Supreme Court in 1996 rolled back recommendations that states provide law libraries in prisons as a way of ensuring inmate access to the courts.

Inmate Welfare Fund

In Maryland, the money that pays for postage, paper and electronic legal research for indigent prisoners comes from the Inmate Welfare Fund, which collects money from soda machines and other concessions in prison.

Maryland Circuit Courts don't keep track of how many cases inmates file. In U.S. District Court in Baltimore and Greenbelt in 1996, inmates filed 723 civil rights cases, or 18 percent, of the court's civil docket. Figures for 1997 are not available.

Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge for the Baltimore Circuit Court, said the inmate caseload is burdensome, but not crushing.

"They're not as bad as 12,000 asbestos cases," he said, referring to the liability lawsuits filed in such numbers that they have their own file room in the courthouse.

Kaplan said he waives court fees for most of the 250 applications for fee-waivers he receives daily, a portion of those being inmate suits.

"They're a burden for corrections; they're a burden for us, but there is no easy way to get rid of them," Kaplan said.

Familiar name

McCoy is one of a handful of Maryland inmates who file so many cases that clerks, judges and other court employees recognize their names. And with McCoy, some also recognize his #i hard-to-decipher loopy handwriting.

He has no law degree, but peppers his briefs with Latin legal phrases he has learned from years of reading law books. He shows up for court appearances in a suit, suspenders, cowboy boots and cowboy hat with law books and a medical dictionary.

In an interview at the Maryland House of Corrections, McCoy said his prison legal career began after he fell and injured his back in 1985 at a federal penitentiary in Arizona. He sued Federal Prison Industries in 1986 for compensation and for 11 years fought the case himself, only briefly hiring a lawyer. When a federal circuit judge agreed to appoint a lawyer for McCoy last year, the federal agency agreed to settle for $9,000. He has not collected.

Over the years, McCoy has reached several cash settlements, including two with prison health-care contractors totaling $14,000. He was won judgments totaling more than $2,000 in medical negligence claims.

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