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Judge’s ‘frivolous’ decision questioned

SCI Houtzdale inmate filed lawsuit seeking care for skin disease

A Clearfield County judge has been instructed by the Pennsylvania Superior Court to explain why he dismissed an inmate’s complaint charging inadequate medical care at a state correctional institution as “frivolous” without holding a hearing.

The inmate, Dennis McKeithan, 61, who is serving a prison term of 55 to 110 years for robberies he committed in Philadelphia, filed a civil lawsuit with the Clearfield County Court asking that SCI Houtzdale be ordered to reinstate medical care for a skin condition that he had received while being housed for 10 years at SCI Albion near Philadelphia.

When McKeithan was transferred to Houtzdale, his treatment for eczema was discontinued.

His lawsuit named a doctor and physician’s assistant as defendants.

Although not employed by the state correctional facility, the two provide medical care to inmates in Houtzdale.

Clearfield County Judge Fredric J. Ammerman dismissed the lawsuit as frivolous and stated that the inmate did not provide proper medical certification required when charging medical malpractice.

A Superior Court panel consisting of Judges Mary P. Murray, Paula Francisco Ott and Correale F. Stevens stated that the Clearfield judge “inexplicably” did not provide an explanation of his ruling that is required when a local decision is contested in the Superior Court.

And the court posed

the question whether Ammerman understood the legal nature of the inmate’s complaint.

The judge, when asked for an opinion as to why he dismissed the lawsuit, answered, “I am writing to advise that I will be submitting no further opinion in this matter.”

The Superior Court panel, after reading the complaint by McKeithan, ruled that the inmate had not filed a medical malpractice lawsuit but instead was contending Houtzdale was in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by being “indifferent” to his medical needs.

The inmate was asking the court to reinstate his “long standing treatment of his eczema skin disease,” the opinion stated.

“Instantly, rather than making a finding regarding deliberate indifference, the trial court concluded that (the inmate’s) petition was frivolous,” the appellate opinion said.

“Our review of the record reveals no basis upon which to conclude (McKeithan’s) action is or is not frivolous,” the opinion, issued last week, stated.

It pointed out that McKeithan was not required to provide a certificate of merit concerning his medical condition.

The appeals court wants the judge to address whether McKeithan’s medical ailments represent a “serious condition” and whether the prison system was demonstrating “deliberate indifference” in refusing treatment.

The opinion stated that the judge may conduct a hearing or an argument in its attempts to clarify the situation.

The Superior Court also ruled that any further appeals in the case should be filed with the Commonwealth Court, which oversees claims of inadequate medical care.

Ammerman’s decision was issued in January.

Since then, McKeithan has been transferred to SCI Greene.

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