490 U.S. 319 (1989), 87-1882, Neitzke v. Williams

Docket Nº:No. 87-1882
Citation:490 U.S. 319, 109 S.Ct. 1827, 104 L.Ed.2d 338, 57 U.S.L.W. 4493
Party Name:Neitzke v. Williams
Case Date:May 01, 1989
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 319

490 U.S. 319 (1989)

109 S.Ct. 1827, 104 L.Ed.2d 338, 57 U.S.L.W. 4493

Neitzke

v.

Williams

No. 87-1882

United States Supreme Court

May 1, 1989

Argued February 22, 1989

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

A provision in the federal in forma pauperis statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d), authorizes courts to dismiss an in forma pauperis claim if, inter alia, "the action is frivolous or malicious." Respondent Williams, a prison inmate, filed a motion to proceed in forma pauperis and a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the District Court, charging that prison officials had violated his Eighth Amendment rights by denying him medical treatment and his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights by transferring him without a hearing to a less desirable cellhouse when he refused to continue working because of his medical condition. The District Court dismissed the complaint sua sponte as frivolous under § 1915(d) on the grounds that Williams had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The Court of Appeals, holding that the District Court had wrongly equated the standard for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6) with the more lenient standard for frivolousness under § 1915(d), which permits dismissal only if a petitioner cannot make any rational argument in law or fact entitling him to relief, affirmed the dismissal of the Fourteenth Amendment claim on the ground that a prisoner clearly has no constitutionally protected liberty or property interest in being incarcerated in a particular institution or wing. However, the court reversed the dismissal of the Eighth Amendment claim as to two of the five defendants, declaring itself unable to state with certainty that Williams was unable to make any rational argument to support his claim.

Held: A complaint filed in forma pauperis is not automatically frivolous within the meaning of § 1915(d) because it fails to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). The two standards were devised to serve distinctive goals, and have separate functions. Under Rule 12(b)(6)'s failure to state a claim standard -- which is designed to streamline litigation by dispensing with needless discovery and factfinding -- a court may dismiss a claim based on a dispositive issue of law [109 S.Ct. 1829] without regard to whether it is based on an outlandish legal theory or on a close but ultimately unavailing one, whereas, under § 1915(d)'s frivolousness standard -- which is intended to discourage baseless lawsuits -- dismissal is proper only if the legal theory (as in Williams' Fourteenth Amendment claim) or the factual contentions lack an arguable basis. The considerable common

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ground between the two standards does not mean that one invariably encompasses the other, since, where a complaint raises an arguable question of law which the district court ultimately finds is correctly resolved against the plaintiff, dismissal on Rule 12(b)(6) grounds is appropriate, but dismissal on the basis of frivolousness is not. This conclusion flows from § 1915(d)'s role of replicating the function of screening out inarguable claims from arguably meritorious ones played out in the realm of paid cases by financial considerations. Moreover, it accords with the understanding articulated in other areas of law that not all unsuccessful claims are frivolous. It is also consonant with Congress' goal in enacting the in forma pauperis statute of assuring equality of consideration for all litigants. To conflate these standards would deny indigent plaintiffs the practical protections of Rule 12(b)(6) -- notice of a pending motion to dismiss and an opportunity to amend the complaint before the motion is ruled on -- which are not provided when complaints are dismissed sua sponte under § 1915(d). Pp. 324-331.

837 F.2d 304, affirmed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

MARSHALL, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether a complaint filed in forma pauperis which fails to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) is automatically frivolous within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d). The answer, we hold, is no.

I

On October 27, 1986, respondent Harry Williams, Sr., an inmate in the custody of the Indiana Department of Corrections, filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, naming five Indiana correctional officials as defendants. App. 38. The complaint alleged that, while at the Indiana State Prison, Williams had been diagnosed by a prison doctor

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as having a small brain tumor which affected his equilibrium. Id. at 40. Because of this condition, the doctor placed Williams for one year on "medical idle status." A medical report Williams attached to the complaint stated that "[i]t is very likely that he will have this condition for some time to come." Id. at 48.

The complaint further alleged that, when Williams was transferred to the Indiana State Reformatory, he notified the reformatory staff about the tumor and about the doctor's recommendation that he not participate in any prison work program. Id. at 41. Despite this notification, reformatory doctors refused to treat the tumor, id. at 40-41, and reformatory officials assigned Williams to do garment manufacturing work, id. at 42. After Williams' equilibrium problems worsened and he refused to continue working, the reformatory disciplinary board responded by transferring him to a less desirable cellhouse. Id. at 42-43.

The complaint charged that, by denying medical treatment, the reformatory officials had violated Williams' rights under the Eighth Amendment, and by transferring him without a hearing, they had violated his rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Id. at 44. The complaint sought money damages and declaratory and injunctive relief. Id. at 45-46. [109 S.Ct. 1830] Along with the complaint, Williams filed a motion to proceed in forma pauperis pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a), stating that he had no assets, and only prison income. App. 36-37.

The District Court dismissed the complaint sua sponte as frivolous under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d) on the grounds that Williams had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Insofar as Williams claimed deficient medical care, his pleadings did not state a claim of "deliberate indifference to [his] serious medical needs," as prisoners' Eighth Amendment claims must under Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104 (1976), but instead described a constitutionally noncognizable

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instance of medical malpractice. Williams v. Faulkner, Cause No. IP 86-1307-C (SD Ind., Jan. 16, 1987), reprinted at App. 67. Insofar as Williams protested his transfer without a hearing, his pleadings failed to state a due process violation, for a prisoner has no constitutionally protected liberty or property interest in being...

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