Lack of Access to Library or Writing Materials Entitled Inmate to Relief From Default—C.A.
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district has reversed an order denying a relief from default sought by a prison inmate who did not timely respond to an action by a woman to nullify her marriage to him on the ground that when she married him in 1993, she was already wed, with the justices holding that the man’s excuse for the delay—lack of access to the prison library or to writing materials caused by COVID restrictions—was a valid one.
Susan Mellen on Sept. 23, 2019, filed her petition for a nullification of her marriage to Steve Gomez, who has been incarcerated since 1997. He was served at a prison in Fresno two weeks later, did not file a responsive pleading, and his default was entered on Jan. 13, 2020.
On March 20, 2020, Gomez filed a motion for relief from default pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure §473(b) based on inadvertence, surprise, mistake, or excusable neglect.
Denial of Motion
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark A. Juhas on July 27, 2020, denied the motion, saying that Gomez’s “claim that he had no access to the law library for two months, or that he had no supplies” fails because he did not “articulate what steps he took or may have taken to obtain what he needed in order to respond,” adding:
“Although he argues that he is unfamiliar with legal procedures and defenses, he has chosen to proceed as a self-represented litigant and this is not a basis upon which to set aside a default.”
In an unpublished opinion filed on Wednesday, Justice John L. Segal of Div. Seven said:
“A series of prison lockdowns in November and December, however, is a pretty good articulation of why an inmate could not obtain what he needed to obtain, and do what he needed to do, to respond to a petition served in October. It is also unclear what other steps Gomez could have taken without access to paper, writing implements, envelopes, and a library….And Gomez did not argue he was entitled to relief because he was self-represented; he argued he was entitled to relief because he could not obtain writing material and envelopes in time to respond to the petition in a timely manner.”
In footnotes, Segal related some of the background. In one footnote, he advised: “Mellen claims that Gomez, who was ‘engaged in certain illegal activities,’ convinced her to marry him in 1993 “in a misguided attempt to create spousal immunity” and that it ‘was never a real marriage.’ She obtained a dissolution of her first marriage in 2019.”
He also noted:
“Mellen was also incarcerated, from 1998 to 2014, but for a crime she did not commit. After her release from prison, she received a $12 million settlement from the City of Los Angeles for wrongful conviction.”
The payment was approved by the Los Angeles City Council on March 22, 2019, in settlement of a federal civil rights action based on alleged police misconduct.
In June 2015, Mellen was awarded $597,200 by the state of California in compensation for the wrongful murder conviction. Paving the way for that award was a Nov. 21, 2014 ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark Arnold that she was factually innocent.
Arnold the previous year ordered her released pursuant to her petition for a writ of habeas corpus based on new evidence.
Susan Mellen looks at Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark Arnold as she enters the courtroom for her exoneration proceedings on Oct. 10, 2014 in Torrance. She spent 17 years in prison for a murder she did not commit. She claims an LAPD detective knowingly used false information in her case.
Copyright 2021, Metropolitan News Company