Denton v. Hernandez, No. 90-1846

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtO'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN
Citation118 L.Ed.2d 340,504 U.S. 25,112 S.Ct. 1728
Docket NumberNo. 90-1846
Decision Date04 May 1992
PartiesGeorge F. DENTON, Director of Corrections of California, et al., Petitioners, v. Mike HERNANDEZ

112 S.Ct. 1728
504 U.S. 25
118 L.Ed.2d 340
George F. DENTON, Director of Corrections of California, et al., Petitioners,

v.

Mike HERNANDEZ.

No. 90-1846.
Argued Feb. 24, 1992.
Decided May 4, 1992.
Syllabus

Respondent Hernandez, a prisoner proceeding pro se, filed five civil rights suits in forma pauperis against petitioner California prison officials, alleging, inter alia, that he was drugged and homosexually raped 28 times by various inmates and prison officials at different institutions. Finding that the facts alleged appeared to be wholly fanciful, the District Court dismissed the cases under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d), which allows courts to dismiss an in forma pauperis complaint "if satisfied that the action is frivolous." Reviewing the dismissals de novo, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded three of the cases. The court's lead opinion concluded that a court can dismiss a complaint as factually frivolous only if the allegations conflict with judicially noticeable facts and that it was impossible to take judicial notice that none of the alleged rapes occurred; the concurring opinion concluded that circuit precedent required that Hernandez be given notice that his claims were to be dismissed as frivolous and a chance to amend his complaints. The Court of Appeals adhered to these positions on remand from this Court for consideration of the Court's intervening decision in Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 109 S.Ct. 1827, 104 L.Ed.2d 338 which held that an in forma pauperis complaint "is frivolous [under § 1915(d) ] where it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact," id., at 325, 109 S.Ct., at 1831.

Held:

1. The Court of Appeals incorrectly limited the power granted the courts to dismiss a frivolous case under § 1915(d). Section 1915(d) gives the courts "the unusual power to pierce the veil of the complaint's factual allegations and dismiss those claims whose factual contentions are clearly baseless." Id., at 327, 109 S.Ct., at 1833. Thus, the court is not bound, as it usually is when making a determination based solely on the pleadings, to accept without question the truth of the plaintiff's allegations. However, in order to respect the congressional goal of assuring equality of consideration for all litigants, the initial assessment of the in forma pauperis plaintiff's factual allegations must be weighted in the plaintiff's favor. A factual frivolousness finding is appropriate when the facts alleged rise to the level of the irrational or the wholly incredible,

Page 26

whether or not there are judicially noticeable facts available to contradict them, but a complaint cannot be dismissed simply because the court finds the allegations to be improbable or unlikely. The "clearly baseless" guidepost need not be defined with more precision, since the district courts are in the best position to determine which cases fall into this category, and since the statute's instruction allowing dismissal if a court is "satisfied" that the complaint is frivolous indicates that the frivolousness decision is entrusted to the discretion of the court entertaining the complaint. Pp. 31-33.

2. Because the frivolousness determination is a discretionary one, a § 1915(d) dismissal is properly reviewed for an abuse of that discretion. It would be appropriate for a court of appeals to consider, among other things, whether the plaintiff was proceeding pro se, whether the district court inappropriately resolved genuine issues of disputed fact, whether the court applied erroneous legal conclusions, whether the court has provided a statement explaining the dismissal that facilitates intelligent appellate review, and whether the dismissal was with or without prejudice. With respect to the last factor, the reviewing court should determine whether the district court abused its discretion by dismissing the complaint with prejudice or without leave to amend if it appears that the allegations could be remedied through more specific pleading, since dismissal under § 1915(d) could have a res judicata effect on frivolous determinations for future in forma pauperis petitions. This Court expresses no opinion on the Court of Appeals' rule that a pro se litigant bringing suit in forma pauperis is entitled to notice and an opportunity to amend the complaint to overcome any deficiency unless it is clear that no amendment can cure the defect. Pp. 33-35.

929 F.2d 1374 (CA9 1990), reversed and remanded.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined.

James Ching, Sacramento, Cal., for petitioners.

Page 27

Richard W. Nichols, Sacramento, Cal., for respondent.

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

The federal in forma pauperis statute, codified at 28 U.S.C. § 1915, allows an indigent litigant to commence a civil or criminal action in federal court without paying the administrative costs of proceeding with the lawsuit. The statute protects against abuses of this privilege by allowing a district court to dismiss the case "if the allegation of poverty is untrue, or if satisfied that the action is frivolous or malicious." 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d). In Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 109 S.Ct. 1827, 104 L.Ed.2d 338 (1989), we considered the standard to be applied when determining whether the legal basis of an in forma pauperis complaint is frivolous under § 1915(d). The issues in this case are the appropriate inquiry for determining when an in forma pauperis litigant's factual allegations justify a § 1915(d) dismissal for frivolousness, and the proper standard of appellate review of such a dismissal.

I

Petitioners are fifteen officials at various institutions in the California penal system. Between 1983 and 1985, respondent Mike Hernandez, a state prisoner proceeding pro se, named petitioners as defendants in five civil rights suits filed in forma pauperis. In relevant part, the complaints in these five suits allege that Hernandez was drugged and homosexually raped a total of 28 times by inmates and prison

Page 28

officials at different institutions.1 With few exceptions, the alleged perpetrators are not identified in the complaints, because Hernandez does not claim any direct recollection of the incidents. Rather, he asserts that he found needle marks on different parts of his body, and fecal and semen stains on his clothes, which led him to believe that he had been drugged and raped while he slept.

Hernandez's allegations that he was sexually assaulted on the nights of January 13, 1984, and January 27, 1984, are supported by an affidavit signed by fellow prisoner Armando Esquer (Esquer Affidavit), which states:

"On January 13, 1984, at approximately 7:30 a.m., I was
on my way to the shower, when I saw correctional officer McIntyre, the P-2 Unit Officer, unlock inmate Mike Hernandez's cell door and subsequently saw as two black inmates stepped inside his cell. I did not see Officer McIntyre order these two black inmates out of inmate Mike Hernandez's cell after they stepped inside, even though inmate Mike Hernandez was asleep inside. After about ten minutes, I returned from the shower, and I noticed my friend, Mike Hernandez, was being sexually assaulted by the two black inmates. Officer McIn-

Page 29

tyre returned to lock inmate Mike Hernandez's cell door after the two black inmates stepped out. I watch[ed] all this activity from the hallway and my cell door.

"On January 27th, 1984, I was again on my way to the
shower, when I noticed the same correctional officer as he unlocked inmate Mike Hernandez's cell door, and also saw as two black inmates stepped inside inmate Mike Hernandez's cell. Then I knew right away that both they and Officer McIntyre were up to no good. After this last incident, I became convinced that Officer McIntyre was deliberately unlocking my friend, Mike Hernandez's cell as he...

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15254 practice notes
  • Quintana v. Core Civic (C.C.A.), No. CIV 18-0233 JB/GJF
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. District of New Mexico
    • 30 Noviembre 2020
    ...a determination based solely on the pleadings, to accept without question the truth of the plaintiff's allegations. Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 32-33, 112 S.Ct. 1728, 118 L.Ed.2d 340 (1992). The court is not required to accept the truth of the plaintiff's allegations but, instead, may......
  • Griffin v. Padula, C.A. No. 2:07-0874-PMD-RSC.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court of South Carolina
    • 6 Julio 2007
    ...and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The review1 has been conducted in light of the following precedents: Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 112 S.Ct. 1728, 118 L.Ed.2d 340 (1992); Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 324-325, 109 S.Ct. 1827, 104 L.Ed.2d 338 (1989); Haines v. Kerner, 404 U......
  • Ates v. United States, 20-CV-4334(JS)(AYS)
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of New York
    • 22 Octubre 2020
    ...v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 327, 109 S. Ct. 1827, 1832, 104 L. Ed. 2d 338 (1989)) (alteration in original); see also Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 33, 112 S. Ct. 1728, 118 L. Ed. 2d 340 (1992) ("[A] finding of factual frivolousness is appropriate when the facts alleged rise to the level ......
  • Howard v. Gusman, CIVIL ACTION NO. 15-4388 SECTION "B" (2)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Louisiana)
    • 22 Enero 2016
    ...286, 292 (5th Cir. 1997) (citing Cay v. Estelle, 789 F.2d 318, 326-27 (5th Cir. 1986), overruled on other grounds by Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 112 S. Ct. 1728 (1992)), and may consider and rely upon documents as additional evidence, as long as they are properly identified, authentic......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
15266 cases
  • Quintana v. Core Civic (C.C.A.), No. CIV 18-0233 JB/GJF
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. District of New Mexico
    • 30 Noviembre 2020
    ...a determination based solely on the pleadings, to accept without question the truth of the plaintiff's allegations. Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 32-33, 112 S.Ct. 1728, 118 L.Ed.2d 340 (1992). The court is not required to accept the truth of the plaintiff's allegations but, instead, may......
  • Griffin v. Padula, C.A. No. 2:07-0874-PMD-RSC.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court of South Carolina
    • 6 Julio 2007
    ...and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The review1 has been conducted in light of the following precedents: Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 112 S.Ct. 1728, 118 L.Ed.2d 340 (1992); Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 324-325, 109 S.Ct. 1827, 104 L.Ed.2d 338 (1989); Haines v. Kerner, 404 U......
  • Ates v. United States, 20-CV-4334(JS)(AYS)
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of New York
    • 22 Octubre 2020
    ...v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 327, 109 S. Ct. 1827, 1832, 104 L. Ed. 2d 338 (1989)) (alteration in original); see also Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 33, 112 S. Ct. 1728, 118 L. Ed. 2d 340 (1992) ("[A] finding of factual frivolousness is appropriate when the facts alleged rise to the level ......
  • Howard v. Gusman, CIVIL ACTION NO. 15-4388 SECTION "B" (2)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Louisiana)
    • 22 Enero 2016
    ...286, 292 (5th Cir. 1997) (citing Cay v. Estelle, 789 F.2d 318, 326-27 (5th Cir. 1986), overruled on other grounds by Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 112 S. Ct. 1728 (1992)), and may consider and rely upon documents as additional evidence, as long as they are properly identified, authentic......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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