848 F.2d 649 (5th Cir. 1988), 88-2232, Lewis v. Woods

Docket Nº88-2232
Citation848 F.2d 649
Party NameWendell Dale LEWIS and Martin Hernandez, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Warden WOODS, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
Case DateJuly 07, 1988
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Page 649

848 F.2d 649 (5th Cir. 1988)

Wendell Dale LEWIS and Martin Hernandez, Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

Warden WOODS, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

No. 88-2232

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

July 7, 1988

Rehearing Denied Aug. 15, 1988.

Page 650

Wendell Dale Lewis, pro se.

Martin Hernandez, pro se.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.

Before RUBIN, REAVLEY, and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges.

ALVIN B. RUBIN, Circuit Judge:

This case presents, in effect, two separate Sec. 1983 lawsuits 1 that were never severed because they were handled in the summary manner permitted by our decision in Spears v. McCotter. 2 One claim is by a prisoner in state custody who complains that prison officials took a radio and amplifier from a fellow inmate to whom he had loaned them and never returned these items. His fellow inmate charges that the prison wrongly placed him in administrative segregation. We affirm the district court's dismissal of the property claim because it does not state a violation of any federal constitutional right but amend the judgment to make clear that the dismissal is without prejudice to any right the prisoner may have under state law. We also affirm the district court's dismissal of the complaint about administrative segregation, but on a ground different from that stated in the district court opinion, and again without prejudice to the prisoner's right to file a complaint stating a cause of action if he can do so.

Wendell Lewis, who is confined in the Coffield Unit of the Texas Department of Corrections, asserts that prison officials took his radio and amplifier from the cell of his fellow inmate Martin Hernandez and have not yet returned this property. Lewis claims that he purchased the radio and amplifier from the prison commissary for $51.95 and $24.95 respectively.

Hernandez complains that prison officials placed him in administrative segregation based on another inmate's false accusation that he had been a gang member on the outside. Lewis and Hernandez both charge that the officials' real motivation for placing Hernandez in segregation was to separate the two inmates whose close friendship and alleged family ties have purportedly raised the animosity of other prisoners who dislike seeing any association between a black and an Hispanic.

The district court held a hearing at the Wynne Unit, Texas Department of Corrections, to obtain a clearer statement of the claims. 3 After the hearing, the district court dismissed with prejudice, under 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1915(d), the claim as to the taking of the radio and amplifier, justifying the dismissal on the grounds that the "property loss is de minimis and further that Plaintiffs have alleged only negligence, at most." As to the plaintiffs' objection to Hernandez's confinement in administrative segregation, the court dismissed this complaint on the ground that the special master appointed in Ruiz v. Estelle 4 might

Page 651

best handle it in connection with that ongoing class action.

The district court relied on several Supreme Court decisions to support its statement that "some violations of an individual's Constitutional rights are de minimis." 5 These cases do not stand for this proposition. A violation of constitutional rights is never de minimis, a phrase meaning so small or trifling that the law takes no account of it. 6 As the Supreme Court and this circuit have emphasized, a party who proves a violation of his constitutional rights is entitled to nominal damages even when there is no actual injury. 7 In Carey v. Piphus, the Supreme Court explained the reason for this rule: "By making deprivation of such [constitutional] rights actionable for nominal damages without proof of actual injury, the law recognizes the importance to organized society that those rights be scrupulously observed." 8 Far from taking no notice of constitutional violations, the law awards nominal damages when such violations occur without causing injury even though no damages will lie for other, lesser torts that do not cause injury.

Moreover, the Supreme Court has recognized that deprivations of a small amount of property, if intentionally inflicted and incapable of redress through post-deprivation state procedures, may contravene the due process clause. In Goss v. Lopez, 9 the Court held that a public school's temporary suspension of a child implicated due process because of the deprivation of educational benefits: "The Court's view has been that as long as a property deprivation is not de minimis, its gravity is irrelevant to the question whether account must be taken of the Due Process Clause." And later, in a portion of Parratt v. Taylor that has not been overruled, the Court held that a hobby kit valued at $23.50 was "property" within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. 10 We cannot agree with the district court, therefore, that Lewis's alleged property loss was de minimis. The Supreme Court has recognized even smaller losses as not only worthy of legal redress but as possibly implicating constitutional rights.

The cases upon which the district court relied actually stand for a different proposition: many acts that might constitute violations of state tort law do not amount to constitutional violations. Thus, in Baker v. McCollan, 11 the Court held that a person arrested and detained on charges of which he was innocent might have a state tort claim of false imprisonment, but he had no constitutional claim so long as the arrest was pursuant to a warrant valid under the Fourth Amendment and the detention comported with due process. Similarly, in Estelle v. Gamble 12 the Court held that an inmate who asserted that a prison physician was negligent in diagnosing or treating him might have a claim for medical malpractice, but he had no claim under the Eighth Amendment unless prison officials exhibited "deliberate indifference to serious medical needs." The Supreme Court in Paul v. Davis succinctly stated the proposition underlying these cases: "[T]he Fourteenth Amendment [is not] a font of tort law to be superimposed upon whatever systems may already be administered by the States. We have noted the

Page 652

'constitutional shoals' that confront any attempt to derive from congressional civil rights statutes a body of general federal tort law." 13 This circuit may help to clarify the distinction between state law torts and constitutional violations when the court rehears Johnson v. Moral 14 en banc, although in the case at bar the distinction is clear.

It is axiomatic that a plaintiff who files suit under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 may recover only if he proves a constitutional violation, 15 and we agree with the district court that Lewis and Hernandez have not alleged facts in their pleadings, as amplified and clarified at the Spears hearing, sufficient to establish a deprivation of property without due process. Although the plaintiffs asserted that the taking was intentional, the district court held that the facts alleged suggested "negligence, at most." In a suit against state officials under Sec. 1983, mere assertions of the intentionality of a challenged act are not enough; the plaintiff must allege specific facts to support such assertions, 16 and the plaintiffs here have not done so. Moreover, even if the taking were intentional, the state could afford the plaintiffs due process by providing a post-deprivation remedy for the redress of the unforeseeable, unauthorized injury here alleged. 17

The pleadings may nonetheless suffice to support a charge of negligent failure on the part of the prison officials to return Lewis's property to him. In the companion cases of Daniels v. Williams 18 and Davidson v. Cannon, 19 however, the Supreme Court held that "the Due Process Clause is simply not implicated by a negligent act of an official causing unintended loss of or injury to life, liberty or property." 20 Without an intentional act, there is no "deprivation" in the constitutional sense. 21 We therefore affirm the district court's dismissal of the property claim on the ground that the plaintiffs have alleged no constitutional violation, but we amend the judgment to clarify that the dismissal is without prejudice to any rights the plaintiffs may have at state law. As we emphasized above, a claim may fall short of constitutional significance and yet remain cognizable under state law.

Lewis and Hernandez next complain that prison officials wrongly placed Hernandez in administrative segregation in reliance on the false accusations of a fellow inmate and without adequately investigating these accusations. As to this claim, the district court stated:

If the charges made in the pleadings are taken as true, the actions of the Texas Department of Corrections officials and their agents may be contrary to the...

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91 practice notes
  • 977 F.2d 299 (7th Cir. 1992), 91-3469, Hessel v. O'Hearn
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • October 6, 1992
    ...supra, 435 U.S. at 266, 98 S.Ct. at 1053; O'Connor v. City & County of Denver, 894 F.2d 1210, 1215 (10th Cir.1990); Lewis v. Woods, 848 F.2d 649, 651 (5th Cir.1988); Davis v. Village Park II Realty Co., 578 F.2d 461, 463 (2d Cir.1978), prove some emotional harm or other specific injury ......
  • Freethought Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia v. Chester County: The Desirability of a De Minimis Exception to the Supreme Courts Establishment Clause Jurisprudence
    • United States
    • Louisiana Law Review Nbr. 65-1, October 2004
    • October 1, 2004
    ...(Brennan, J., dissenting). [122] Nemerofsky, supra note 120, at 316. [123] Id at 323. [124] Id. [125] Id. (quoting 1 John Norton Pomeroy, A Treatise on Equity Jurisprudence ...
  • 948 F.2d 946 (5th Cir. 1991), 90-3810, Allen v. Louisiana State Bd. of Dentistry
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • December 17, 1991
    ...See Estate of Farrar v. Cain, 941 F.2d 1311, 1315 (5th Cir.1991) (constitutional violation never de minimus ) (quoting Lewis v. Woods, 848 F.2d 649, 651 (5th Cir.1988)). Yet we reject appellant's contention that this victory is sufficient for us to conclude that the district court abused it......
  • Muniz v. City of San Antonio, 112920 TXWDC, Civ. SA-18-CV-01002-OLG
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 5th Circuit United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Southern District of Texas
    • November 29, 2020
    ...is entitled to declaratory relief consistent with these conclusions as well as nominal damages of $1.00. See Lewis v. Woods, 848 F.2d 649, 651 (5th Cir. 1988) ("As the Supreme Court and this circuit have emphasized, a party who proves a violation of his constit......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
90 cases
  • 977 F.2d 299 (7th Cir. 1992), 91-3469, Hessel v. O'Hearn
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
    • October 6, 1992
    ...supra, 435 U.S. at 266, 98 S.Ct. at 1053; O'Connor v. City & County of Denver, 894 F.2d 1210, 1215 (10th Cir.1990); Lewis v. Woods, 848 F.2d 649, 651 (5th Cir.1988); Davis v. Village Park II Realty Co., 578 F.2d 461, 463 (2d Cir.1978), prove some emotional harm or other specific injury ......
  • 948 F.2d 946 (5th Cir. 1991), 90-3810, Allen v. Louisiana State Bd. of Dentistry
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
    • December 17, 1991
    ...See Estate of Farrar v. Cain, 941 F.2d 1311, 1315 (5th Cir.1991) (constitutional violation never de minimus ) (quoting Lewis v. Woods, 848 F.2d 649, 651 (5th Cir.1988)). Yet we reject appellant's contention that this victory is sufficient for us to conclude that the district court abused it......
  • Muniz v. City of San Antonio, 112920 TXWDC, Civ. SA-18-CV-01002-OLG
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 5th Circuit Southern District of Texas
    • November 29, 2020
    ...is entitled to declaratory relief consistent with these conclusions as well as nominal damages of $1.00. See Lewis v. Woods, 848 F.2d 649, 651 (5th Cir. 1988) ("As the Supreme Court and this circuit have emphasized, a party who proves a violation of his constit......
  • 888 F.Supp. 775 (N.D.Tex. 1995), Civ. 394-CV-2168, Gilbert v. Texas Mental Health and Mental Retardation
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 5th Circuit Northern District of Texas
    • May 16, 1995
    ...part of the Johnson opinion requiring that all cases implicating the Ruiz court's decree be transferred to the Ruiz court. Lewis v. Woods, 848 F.2d 649, 653 (5th [4] They further contend that no similar administrative difficulties would result if this Court announced a policy of retaining j......
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