66 F.3d 56 (4th Cir. 1995), 94-6667, Biggs v. Meadows

Docket Nº:94-6667.
Citation:66 F.3d 56
Party Name:Robert BIGGS, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. William C. MEADOWS; Nurse Cartwright; Superintendent Barnes; Mr. Weeks, Defendants-Appellees.
Case Date:September 18, 1995
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

Page 56

66 F.3d 56 (4th Cir. 1995)

Robert BIGGS, Plaintiff-Appellant,


William C. MEADOWS; Nurse Cartwright; Superintendent

Barnes; Mr. Weeks, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 94-6667.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

September 18, 1995

Argued March 9, 1995.

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ARGUED: James Douglas Minor, Student Counsel, Appellate Litigation Clinical Program, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC, for Appellant. James Peeler Smith, Department of Justice, Raleigh, NC, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: Steven H. Goldblatt, Director, Ellen R. Finn, Supervising Attorney, Appellate Litigation Clinical Program, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC, for Appellant. Michael F. Easley, Attorney General of North Carolina, M. Lynn Jarvis, Associate Attorney General, Department of Justice, Raleigh, NC, for Appellees.

Before ERVIN, Chief Judge, WILKINS, Circuit Judge, and WILLIAMS, United States District Judge for the District of Maryland, sitting by designation.

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Reversed and remanded by published opinion. Chief Judge ERVIN wrote the opinion, in which Judge WILKINS and Judge WILLIAMS joined.


ERVIN, Chief Judge:

In this case, we address whether a plaintiff filing a complaint under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 must plead expressly that state officials are being sued in their individual, rather than official, capacities. Adopting the view accepted by most other circuits, we hold that a litigant need not explicitly draw such a distinction. Instead, a court must look to the substance of the complaint, the relief sought, and the course of proceedings to determine the nature of a plaintiff's claims. Because the district court erroneously applied a presumption that defendants are sued only in their official capacities unless a complaint specifically states that a personal capacity suit is intended, we reverse the judgment of the district court dismissing this action and remand the case for further proceedings.


On January 11, 1993, appellant Robert Biggs, a North Carolina inmate incarcerated at the Gates Correctional Center in Gatesville, filed a pro se complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. The complaint named as defendants prison Nurse Juanita Cartwright, prison Superintendent Barnes, and Area Administrator William Meadows. Seeking compensatory damages in the amount of $10,000 for the denial of proper medical treatment and his attendant suffering, Biggs alleged that the defendants had acted with deliberate indifference to his medical needs, in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Specifically, Biggs, who was taking various prescription drugs when he was transferred to Gates on December 1, 1992, claimed that the prison psychiatrist had prescribed new medication for him on December 13, which he did not receive until December 29. This lapse apparently was related to the prison's medical personnel not having the newly prescribed drugs on the premises. Ordered from another prison pharmacy, the medication did not arrive until the afternoon of December 23, the last working day before Christmas. In addition to the substantial delay, Biggs asserted that he had vomited every night from taking the wrong medication and that he had filed two grievances based on the improper administration of his medicine, both of which had been denied. Biggs also contended that Nurse Cartwright had failed to dispense the prescribed medication at the appropriate time and that Assistant Superintendent Austin Weeks had failed to correct the problem after Biggs brought it to his attention.

On May 28, 1993, the district court ordered Biggs to particularize his complaint with regard to defendants Barnes and Meadows, because Biggs had failed to allege any conduct on which liability could be imposed on them. Biggs responded by conceding that Barnes and Meadows had no direct involvement in the events at issue and by seeking to amend his complaint in order to add Superintendent Weeks as a defendant. On July 2, 1993, the court dismissed the claims against Barnes and Meadows as frivolous under 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1915(d) and granted Biggs' request to add Weeks as a defendant.

Weeks and Cartwright filed motions to dismiss and for summary judgment on March 25, 1994. They contended that they had not been deliberately indifferent to Biggs' medical needs. In addition, Weeks and Cartwright argued that Biggs' suit was barred by the Eleventh Amendment, because Sec. 1983 prohibits claims for damages against state officers acting in their official capacities, and Biggs had failed to plead expressly that the defendants were being sued as individuals. Finally, Weeks and Cartwright claimed that they were qualifiedly immune from liability.

The district court granted the motion to dismiss. In doing so, the court applied a presumption that Sec. 1983 defendants are sued only in their official capacities...

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