581 F.2d 412 (5th Cir. 1978), 77-2656, Mitchell v. Beaubouef

Docket Nº:77-2656
Citation:581 F.2d 412
Party Name:Arthur MITCHELL, Gregory Robertson, and William Birtha, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Michael BEAUBOUEF et al., Defendants-Appellees.
Case Date:September 18, 1978
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
 
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Page 412

581 F.2d 412 (5th Cir. 1978)

Arthur MITCHELL, Gregory Robertson, and William Birtha,

Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

Michael BEAUBOUEF et al., Defendants-Appellees.

No. 77-2656

[*]

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

September 18, 1978

Page 413

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 414

Arthur Mitchell, pro se.

Gregory Robertson, pro se.

William Birtha, pro se.

J. Marvin Montgomery, Staff Atty., Baton Rouge, La., for defendants-appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana.

Before COLEMAN, GODBOLD, and TJOFLAT, Circuit Judges.

PER CURIAM:

Arthur Mitchell, Gregory Robertson, and William Birtha, inmates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, filed a pro se complaint in the district court, alleging that they had been deprived of their constitutional rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1970). The court below handled the complaint in conformance with a procedure devised to process prisoner civil rights claims and dismissed it on the merits. Because we find the court's procedure as applied in this case to be deficient, we vacate the order of dismissal and remand the case for further proceedings.

The inmates' complaint alleged that they had been deprived of due process of law in a prison disciplinary hearing, which resulted in their being sentenced to a "lockdown." They sought injunctive relief and damages.

The district court ordered that the complaint be filed in forma pauperis and immediately referred it to a magistrate. The magistrate stayed the case pending the exhaustion of state administrative procedures and ordered review of the complaint by the Louisiana Department of Corrections in accordance with the district court's unreported decision in Michelli v. Henderson, No. 74-296 (M.D.La. Nov. 27, 1974). 1 In accordance with Michelli, the magistrate required that the defendants be served with the complaint and that they submit an administrative report to the court within sixty days.

The defendants filed the administrative report within the allotted time. This unverified report stated that an administrative appeal had been granted in favor of the inmates and that a new, full hearing would be held. The inmates then moved for summary judgment, acknowledging that their administrative appeal had been granted but demanding damages for the allegedly unjust treatment they had already received.

On the basis of the unverified administrative report, the magistrate reported to the district judge that there was "no evidence of bad faith on the part of the board members" who conducted the first hearing, the subject of the inmates' complaint. Record at 42. The magistrate's report did not indicate whether he considered bad faith to be a necessary element of the inmates' cause of action or reasonable good faith to be an affirmative defense. In either event, the magistrate recommended that the complaint be dismissed without prejudice, reserving to the inmates the right to refile their complaint upon the completion of the new administrative hearings and any appeal that might follow. The district court dismissed the suit with prejudice, however, without the recommended reservation. Thereafter, it granted the inmates leave to appeal to this court in forma pauperis and

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certified that this appeal has been taken in good faith.

Although this court is sympathetic to the problems of the district courts in the management of pro se prisoner litigation, E. g., Taylor v. Gibson, 529 F.2d 709, 713 (5th Cir. 1976), we cannot countenance the use of the summary procedure utilized in this case. This case was summarily dismissed on the merits on the basis of the unverified administrative report submitted to the magistrate. Although we have recognized that such reports may aid the district court in framing the issues for trial or summary disposition, See id. at 717, they cannot be used to circumvent the summary judgment requirements of rule 56, Fed.R.Civ.P. See Hardwick v. Ault, 517 F.2d 295, 298 (5th Cir. 1975) (the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure apply to section 1983 cases). Under the rule, factual statements, such as the defendants' report, should be submitted in affidavit form, or they may be reduced to admissions through the invocation, for example, of rule 36, Fed.R.Civ.P., or they may be made the subject of stipulation. The procedure established by the district court in Michelli, however, where the magistrate apparently is authorized to make factual determinations from evidence submitted in a manner not recognized by the rules, clearly circumvents the letter and spirit of the federal rules. At most, the defendants' report should have been treated as an answer to the inmates' complaint, thus setting the stage for further pretrial proceedings in which, once the issues had been delineated, it could be determined whether any factual issues remained to be litigated in a bench trial, or, if either party demanded it pursuant to rule 38, Fed.R.Civ.P., in a trial by jury.

To the end that justice be done in these prisoner civil rights cases, we have outlined acceptable procedures in a series of opinions. E. g., Taylor v. Gibson; Watson v. Ault, 525 F.2d 886 (5th Cir. 1976); Hardwick v. Ault; Campbell v. Beto, 460 F.2d 765 (5th Cir. 1972). They bear repeating in the context of this case.

The complaint must be filed upon a showing of poverty by the prisoner. Watson v. Ault, 525 F.2d at 892. The court below did file the inmates' complaint in forma pauperis. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure call for the liberal reading of complaints by district courts. An even more expansive reading is appropriate in the context of pro se prisoner litigation. Such a complaint "should not be dismissed unless it appears beyond all doubt that the prisoner could prove no set of facts under which he would be entitled to relief." Taylor v. Gibson, 529 F.2d at 714. E. g. Haines v. Kerner,404 U.S. 519, 92 S.Ct. 594, 595-96, 30 L.Ed.2d 652 (1972); Watson v. Ault,525 F.2d at 891-92. If the district court cannot ascertain from the complaint whether it states a claim upon which relief can be granted, the questionnaire approved in Watson v. Ault may be used as a pleading auxiliary. The complaint in the case before us was filed on such a questionnaire form and clearly states a cause of action by pleading a denial of due process in a disciplinary hearing. Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 94 S.Ct. 2963, 41 L.Ed.2d 935 (1974).

If the complaint is deemed legally sufficient under the liberal standard appropriate to this type of case, then service of process on the defendant, as was done here, is required pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 4(a). Watson v. Ault, 525 F.2d at 893. In the case before us, the district court referred the complaint to the magistrate. Under 28 U.S.C.A. § 636(b)(1)(B) (West Supp. 1978), a district judge may refer prisoner petitions challenging conditions of confinement to a magistrate. In these cases, a magistrate is authorized "to conduct hearings, including evidentiary hearings, and to submit to a judge of the court proposed findings of fact and recommendations for the disposition, by a judge of the court, of any (pretrial) motion." Id. Such motions include motions "for judgment on the pleadings, for summary judgment, (and) to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." 28 U.S.C.A.

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§ 636(b)(1)(A) (West Supp. 1978). The statute does not exempt magistrates from the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, however.

The district court may dismiss the complaint if it is frivolous or malicious. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d) (1970). A dismissal of a pro se complaint for failure to state a cause of action should be without prejudice, however, so that the inmate may file an amended complaint within a reasonable time. Hines v. Wainwright, 539 F.2d 433, 434 (5th Cir. 1976). Further, in civil rights litigation challenging the conditions of confinement under section 1983, a prisoner is not obligated to exhaust state administrative remedies. E. g., Preiser v....

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