474 U.S. 344 (1986), 84-6470, Davidson v. Cannon

Docket Nº:No. 84-6470
Citation:474 U.S. 344, 106 S.Ct. 668, 88 L.Ed.2d 677, 54 U.S.L.W. 4095
Party Name:Davidson v. Cannon
Case Date:January 21, 1986
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 344

474 U.S. 344 (1986)

106 S.Ct. 668, 88 L.Ed.2d 677, 54 U.S.L.W. 4095

Davidson

v.

Cannon

No. 84-6470

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 21, 1986

Argued November 6, 1985

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE THIRD CIRCUIT

Syllabus

When threatened by a fellow inmate in the New Jersey State Prison, petitioner sent a note reporting the incident to respondent Assistant Superintendent of the prison, who read the note and sent it to respondent Corrections Sergeant, who, while informed of its contents, did not read it or notify other officers of the threat, and forgot about it by the time he went off duty. Two days later, the inmate attacked petitioner and inflicted serious injuries. Petitioner then brought a damages action against respondents in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that they had violated his rights under, inter alia, the Fourteenth Amendment by negligently failing to protect him from the other inmate. After a bench trial, the District Court awarded damages, holding that petitioner was deprived of his liberty interest in personal security as a result of respondents' negligence and that such deprivation was without due process because of a New Jersey statute that protects prison officials from liability for injuries caused by one prisoner to another. The Court of Appeals reversed.

Held: The protections of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, [106 S.Ct. 669] whether procedural or substantive, are not triggered by lack of due care by prison officials. Daniels v. Williams, ante p. 327. Respondents' lack of due care, while leading to serious injuries, simply does not approach the sort of abusive government conduct that the Due Process Clause was designed to prevent. Pp. 347-348.

752 F.2d 817, affirmed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, POWELL, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, ante, p. 336. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 349. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 349.

Page 345

REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner sued prison official, seeking damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 or injuries he suffered when they negligently failed to protect him from another inmate. On December 19, 1980, petitioner was threatened by one McMillian, a fellow inmate at the New Jersey State Prison at Leesburg. Petitioner sent a note reporting the incident that found its way to respondent Cannon, the Assistant Superintendent of the prison, who read the note and sent it on to respondent James, a Corrections Sergeant. * Cannon subsequently testified that he did not view the situation as urgent because, on previous occasions when petitioner had a serious problem, he had contacted Cannon directly.

James received the note at about 2 p.m. on December 19, and was informed of its contents. James then attended to other matters, which he described as emergencies, and left the note on his desk unread. By the time he left the prison that evening, James had forgotten about the note, and since

Page 346

neither he nor Cannon worked on December 20 or 21, the officers on duty at that time had not been informed of the threat. Petitioner took no steps other than writing the note to alert the authorities that he feared an attack, nor did he request protective custody. He testified that he did not foresee an attack, and that he wrote the note to exonerate himself in the event that McMillian started another fight. He also testified that he wanted officials to reprimand McMillian in order to forestall any future incident. On Sunday, December 21, McMillian attacked petitioner with a fork, breaking his nose and inflicting other wounds to his face, neck, head, and body.

Petitioner brought this § 1983 suit in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, claiming that respondents (and two others) had violated his constitutional rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. After a bench trial, the District Court held that petitioner had not established an Eighth Amendment violation

because [respondents] did not act with deliberate or callous indifference to [petitioner's] needs and because the incident complained of was a single attack.

App. 89. The court also found, however, that respondents "negligently failed to take reasonable steps to protect [petitioner], and that he was injured as a result." Ibid. Petitioner was thereby deprived, see Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 536-537 (1981), of his liberty interest in personal security, see Igraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651, 673 (1977); and because New Jersey law provides that "[n]either a public entity nor a public employee is liable for . . . any injury caused by . . . a prisoner to any other prisoner," N.J.Stat.Ann. § 59:5-2(b)(4) (1982), the court concluded that the deprivation was without due process. Petitioner was awarded compensatory damages of $2,000.

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, hearing the case en banc, reversed. 752 F.2d 817 (1984). While accepting the District Court's conclusion that respondents had been negligent, and agreeing that the attack on petitioner implicated

Page 347

a recognized liberty interest, the majority held that respondents' negligence did not work a "deprivation" of that interest within the meaning of the Due Process Clause. The court conceded that language in Parratt supported the District Court's position that merely negligent conduct causing injury could constitute a Fourteenth Amendment "deprivation," but concluded that "Parratt does not so hold." 752 F.2d at 826. Accordingly, the court ruled that petitioner had failed to make out a violation of his procedural or substantive due process rights, stating that § 1983 provides no remedy "for the type of negligence found in this case." Id. at 829.

Two judges who joined the majority opinion also wrote separately to suggest that even if respondents' negligence had "deprived" petitioner of liberty, the State's decision not to provide a remedy, in view of its strong interest in protecting its prison officials from liability, did not violate due process. Three judges dissented, essentially embracing the position of the District Court.

We granted certiorari, 471 U.S. 1134 (1985), and set this case for oral argument with Daniels v. Williams, ante p. 327. Finding the principles enunciated in Daniels controlling here, we affirm.

In Daniels, we held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is not implicated by the lack of due care of an official causing unintended injury to life, liberty, or property. In other words, where a government official is merely negligent in causing the injury, no procedure for compensation is constitutionally required. In this case, petitioner does not challenge the District Court's finding that respondents "`did not act with deliberate or callous indifference to [petitioner's] needs,'" 752 F.2d at 820. Instead, he claims only that respondents "negligently failed to protect him from another inmate." Brief for Petitioner 2. Daniels therefore controls.

Respondents' lack of due care in this case led to serious injury, but that lack of care simply does not approach the sort

Page 348

of abusive government conduct that the Due Process Clause was designed to prevent. Daniels, ante at 331-333. Far from abusing governmental power, or employing it as an instrument of oppression, respondent Cannon mistakenly believed that the situation was not particularly serious, and respondent James simply forgot about the note. The guarantee of due process has never been understood to mean that the State must guarantee due care on the part of its officials.

In an effort to limit the potentially broad sweep of his claim, petitioner emphasizes that he

does not ask this Court to read the Constitution as an absolute guarantor of his liberty from assault by a fellow prisoner, even if that assault is caused by the negligence of his jailers.

Brief for Petitioner 17. Describing his claim as one of "procedural due process, pure and simple," id. at 14, all he asks is that New Jersey provide him a remedy. But the Fourteenth Amendment does not require a remedy when there has been no "deprivation" of a protected interest. Petitioner's claim, based on respondents' negligence, is quite different from one involving injuries [106 S.Ct. 671] caused by an unjustified attack by prison guards themselves, see Johnson v. Glick, 481 F.2d 1028 (CA2), (Friendly, J.), cert. denied sub nom. John v. Johnson, 414 U.S. 1033 (1973), or by another prisoner where officials simply stood by and permitted the attack to proceed, see Curtis v. Everette, 489 F.2d 516 (CA3 1973), cert. denied sub nom. Smith v. Curtis, 416 U.S. 995 (1974). As we held in Daniels, the protections of the Due Process Clause, whether procedural or substantive, are just not triggered by lack of due care by prison officials.

Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit is affirmed.

It is so ordered.

Page 349

[For opinion of JUSTICE STEVENS concurring in the judgment, see ante p. 336].

BRENNAN, J., dissenting

JUSTICE BRENNAN, dissenting.

I agree with the Court that merely negligent conduct by a state official, even though causing personal injury, does not constitute a deprivation of liberty under the Due Process Clause. I do believe, however, that official conduct which causes personal injury due to recklessness or deliberate indifference, does deprive the victim of liberty within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.

As JUSTICE BLACKMUN persuasively demonstrates in his dissent, the record in this case strongly suggests that the prison officials' failure to protect petitioner from attack was reckless, and not merely negligent. Accordingly, like JUSTICE...

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