451 U.S. 527 (1981), 79-1734, Parratt v. Taylor

Docket Nº:No. 79-1734
Citation:451 U.S. 527, 101 S.Ct. 1908, 68 L.Ed.2d 420
Party Name:Parratt v. Taylor
Case Date:May 18, 1981
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 527

451 U.S. 527 (1981)

101 S.Ct. 1908, 68 L.Ed.2d 420




No. 79-1734

United States Supreme Court

May 18, 1981

Argued March 2, 1981




Respondent, an inmate of a Nebraska prison, ordered by mail certain hobby materials. After being delivered to the prison, the packages containing the materials were lost when the normal procedure for receipt of mail packages was not followed. Respondent brought an action in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against petitioner prison officials to recover the value of the hobby materials, claiming that petitioners had negligently lost the materials, and thereby deprived respondent of property without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The District Court entered summary judgment for respondent, holding that negligent actions by state officials can be a basis for an action under § 1983, that petitioners were not immune from liability, and that the deprivation of the hobby materials implicated due process rights. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Respondent has not stated a claim for relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Pp. 531-544.

(a) In any § 1983 action, the initial inquiry must focus on whether the two essential elements to a § 1983 action are present: (1) whether the conduct complained of was committed by a person acting under color of state law; and (2) whether this conduct deprived a person of rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States. Pp. 531-535.

(b) Although respondent has been deprived of property under color of state law, he has not sufficiently alleged a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The deprivation did not occur as the result of some established state procedure, but as the result of the unauthorized failure of state agents to follow established state procedure. Moreover, Nebraska has a tort claims procedure which provides a remedy to persons who have suffered a tortious loss at the hands of the State, but which respondent did not use. Such procedure could have fully compensated respondent for his property loss, and was sufficient to satisfy the requirements of due process. Pp. 535-544.

620 F.2d 307, reversed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ.,

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joined. STEWART, J., post, p. 544, WHITE, J., post, p. 545, and BLACKMUN, J., post, p. 545, filed concurring opinions. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the result, post, p. 546. MARSHALL, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part., post p. 554.

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REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

The respondent is an inmate at the Nebraska Penal and Correctional Complex [101 S.Ct. 1910] who ordered by mail certain hobby materials valued at $23.50. The hobby materials were lost, and respondent brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to recover their value. At first blush, one might well inquire why respondent brought an action in federal court to recover damages of such a small amount for negligent loss of property, but because 28 U.S.C. § 1343, the predicate for the jurisdiction of the United States District Court, contains no minimum dollar limitation, he was authorized by Congress to bring his action under that section if he met its requirements and if he stated a claim for relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Respondent claimed that his property was negligently lost by prison officials in violation of his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. More specifically, he claimed that he had been deprived of property without due process of law.1

The United States District Court for the District of Nebraska entered summary judgment for respondent, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed

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in a per curiam order. 620 F.2d 307 (1980). We granted certiorari. 449 U.S. 917 (1980).


The facts underlying this dispute are not seriously contested. Respondent paid for the hobby materials he ordered with two drafts drawn on his inmate account by prison officials. The packages arrived at the complex and were signed for by two employees who worked in the prison hobby center. One of the employees was a civilian, and the other was an inmate. Respondent was in segregation at the time, and was not permitted to have the hobby materials. Normal prison procedures for the handling of mail packages is that, upon arrival, they are either delivered to the prisoner who signs a receipt for the package or the prisoner is notified to pick up the package and to sign a receipt. No inmate other than the one to whom the package is addressed is supposed to sign for a package. After being released from segregation, respondent contacted several prison officials regarding the whereabouts of his packages. The officials were never able to locate the packages or to determine what caused their disappearance.

In 1976, respondent commenced this action against the petitioners, the Warden and Hobby Manager of the prison, in the District Court seeking to recover the value of the hobby materials which he claimed had been lost as a result of the petitioners' negligence. Respondent alleged that petitioners' conduct deprived him of property without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Respondent chose to proceed in the United States District Court under 28 U.S.C. § 1343 and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, even though the State of Nebraska had a tort claims procedure which provided a remedy to persons who suffered tortious losses at the hands of the State.

On October 25, 1978, the District Court granted respondent's

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motion for summary judgment. The District Court ruled that negligent actions by state officials can be a basis for an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; petitioners were not immune from damages actions of this kind; and the deprivation of the hobby kit "implicate[d] due process rights." The District Court explained:

This is not a situation where prison officials confiscated contraband. The negligence of the officials in failing to follow their own policies concerning the distribution of mail resulted in a loss of personal [101 S.Ct. 1911] property for [respondent], which loss should not go without redress.

App. to Pet. for Cert. 9.


In the best of all possible worlds, the District Court's above-quoted statement that respondent's loss should not go without redress would be an admirable provision to be contained in a code which governed the administration of justice in a civil law jurisdiction. For better or for worse, however, our traditions arise from the common law of case-by-case reasoning and the establishment of precedent. In 49 of the 50 States, the common law system, as modified by statute, constitutional amendment, or judicial decision governs. Coexisting with the 50 States which make it up, and supreme over them to the extent of its authority under Art. IV of the Constitution, is the National Government. At an early period in the history of this Nation, it was held that there was no federal common law of crimes, United States v. Hudson & Goodwin, 7 Cranch 32 (1812), and, since Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938), there has been no general common law applicable in federal courts merely by reason of diversity of citizenship jurisdiction. Therefore, in order properly to decide this case, we must deal not simply with a single, general principle, however just that principle may be in the abstract, but with the complex interplay of the Constitution,

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statutes, and the facts which form the basis for this litigation.

Because federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, we must first look to the Act of Congress which confers jurisdiction over claims such as respondent's on a United States district court. Such enactment is found in 28 U.S.C. § 1343, which provides in pertinent part:

The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action authorized by law to be commenced by any person:

* * * *

(3) To redress the deprivation, under color of any State law, statute, ordinance, regulation, custom or usage, of any right, privilege or immunity secured by the Constitution of the United States or by any Act of Congress providing for equal rights of citizens or of all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States.

The statute conferring jurisdiction is, in turn, closely related to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, under which respondent brought this action. Section 1983 provided in the year in question:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage of any State or Territory, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.

While we have twice granted certiorari in cases to decide whether mere negligence will support a claim for relief under § 1983, see Procunier v. Navarette, 434 U.S. 555 (1978), and Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137 (1979), we have in each of those cases found it unnecessary to decide the issue. In Procunier, supra, we held that, regardless of whether the

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§ 1983 complaint framed in terms of negligence stated a claim for relief, the defendants would clearly have been entitled to qualified immunity, and therefore not liable for damages. In Baker, supra, we...

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