Hudson v. Millian, No. 90-6531

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtO'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined, and in which STEVENS, J., joined as to Parts I, II-A, II-B, and II-C. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concur
Citation112 S.Ct. 995,117 L.Ed.2d 156,503 U.S. 1
PartiesKeith J. HUDSON, Petitioner, v. Jack McMILLIAN et al
Docket NumberNo. 90-6531
Decision Date25 February 1992

503 U.S. 1
112 S.Ct. 995
117 L.Ed.2d 156
Keith J. HUDSON, Petitioner,

v.

Jack McMILLIAN et al.

No. 90-6531.
Argued Nov. 13, 1991.
Decided Feb. 25, 1992.
Syllabus

Petitioner Hudson, a Louisiana prison inmate, testified that minor bruises, facial swelling, loosened teeth, and a cracked dental plate he had suffered resulted from a beating by respondent prison guards McMillian and Woods while he was handcuffed and shackled following an argument with McMillian, and that respondent Mezo, a supervisor on duty, watched the beating but merely told the officers "not to have too much fun." The Magistrate trying Hudson's District Court suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 found that the officers used force when there was no need to do so and that Mezo expressly condoned their actions, ruled that respondents had violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments, and awarded Hudson damages. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding, inter alia, that inmates alleging use of excessive force in violation of the Amendment must prove "significant injury" and that Hudson could not prevail because his injuries were "minor" and required no medical attention.

Held: The use of excessive physical force against a prisoner may constitute cruel and unusual punishment even though the inmate does not suffer serious injury. Pp. 5-12 .

(a) Whenever prison officials stand accused of using excessive physical force constituting "the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain" violative of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, the core judicial inquiry is that set out in Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 320-321, 106 S.Ct. 1078, 1084-1085, 89 L.Ed.2d 251: whether force was applied in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore

Page 2

discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm. Extending Whitley § application of the "unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain" standard to all allegations of force, whether the prison disturbance is a riot or a lesser disruption, works no innovation. See, e.g., Johnson v. Glick, 481 F.2d 1028, cert. denied, 414 U.S. 1033, 94 S.Ct. 462, 38 L.Ed.2d 324. Pp. 5-7.

(b) Since, under the Whitley approach, the extent of injury suffered by an inmate is one of the factors to be considered in determining whether the use of force is wanton and unnecessary, 475 U.S., at 321, 106 S.Ct., at 1085, the absence of serious injury is relevant to, but does not end, the Eighth Amendment inquiry. There is no merit to respondents' assertion that a significant injury requirement is mandated by what this Court termed, in Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. ----, ----, 111 S.Ct. 2321, 2326, 115 L.Ed.2d 271, the "objective component" of Eighth Amendment analysis: whether the alleged wrongdoing is objectively "harmful enough" to establish a constitutional violation, id., at ----, ----, 111 S.Ct., at 2326, 2329. That component is contextual and responsive to "contemporary standards of decency." Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 103, 97 S.Ct. 285, 290, 50 L.Ed.2d 251. In the excessive force context, such standards always are violated when prison officials maliciously and sadistically use force to cause harm, see Whitley, 475 U.S., at 327, 106 S.Ct., at 1088, whether or not significant injury is evident. Moreover, although the Amendment does not reach de minimis uses of physical force, provided that such use is not of a sort repugnant to the conscience of mankind, ibid., the blows directed at Hudson are not de minimis, and the extent of his injuries thus provides no basis for dismissal of his § 1983 claim. Pp. 7-10.

(c) The dissent's theory that Wilson requires an inmate who alleges excessive force to show significant injury in addition to the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain misapplies Wilson and ignores the body of this Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. Wilson did not involve an allegation of excessive force and, with respect to the "objective component" of an Eighth Amendment claim, suggested no departure from Estelle and its progeny. The dissent's argument that excessive force claims and conditions of confinement claims are no different in kind is likewise unfounded. To deny the difference between punching a prisoner in the face and serving him unappetizing food is to ignore the concepts of dignity, civilized standards, humanity, and decency that animate the Eighth Amendment. See Estelle, supra, 429 U.S., at 102, 97 S.Ct., at 290. P. 10-11.

(d) This Court takes no position on respondents' legal argument that their conduct was isolated, unauthorized, and against prison policy and therefore beyond the scope of "punishment" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. That argument is inapposite on the record, since the Court of Appeals left intact the Magistrate's determination that the violence at issue was not an isolated assault, and ignores the Magistrate's finding that supervisor Mezo expressly condoned the use of force. Moreover, to the extent that respondents rely on the unauthorized na-

Page 3

ture of their acts, they make a claim not addressed by the Court of Appeals, not presented by the question on which this Court granted certiorari, and, accordingly, not before this Court. Pp. 11-12.

929 F.2d 1014 (CA 5 1990), reversed.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined, and in which STEVENS, J., joined as to Parts I, II-A, II-B, and II-C. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SCALIA, J., joined.

Alvin J. Bronstein, for petitioner.

John G. Roberts, Jr., as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner.

Harry McCall, Jr., for respondent.

Page 4

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case requires us to decide whether the use of excessive physical force against a prisoner may constitute cruel and unusual punishment when the inmate does not suffer serious injury. We answer that question in the affirmative.

I

At the time of the incident that is the subject of this suit, petitioner Keith Hudson was an inmate at the state penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana. Respondents Jack McMillian, Marvin Woods, and Arthur Mezo served as corrections security officers at the Angola facility. During the early morning hours of October 30, 1983, Hudson and McMillian argued. Assisted by Woods, McMillian then placed Hudson in handcuffs and shackles, took the prisoner out of his cell, and walked him toward the penitentiary's "administrative lockdown" area. Hudson testified that, on the way there, McMillian punched Hudson in the mouth, eyes, chest, and stomach while Woods held the inmate in place and kicked and punched him from behind. He further testified that Mezo, the supervisor on duty, watched the beating but merely told the officers "not to have too much fun." App. 23. As a result of this episode, Hudson suffered minor bruises and swelling of his face, mouth, and lip. The blows also loosened Hudson's teeth and cracked his partial dental plate, rendering it unusable for several months.

Hudson sued the three corrections officers in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments and seeking compensatory damages. The parties consented to disposition of the case before a Magistrate, who found that McMillian and Woods used force when there was no need to do so and that Mezo expressly condoned their actions. App. 26. The Magistrate awarded Hudson damages of $800. Id., at 29.

Page 5

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed. 929 F.2d 1014 (1990). It held that inmates alleging use of excessive force in violation of the Eighth Amendment must prove: (1) significant injury; (2) resulting "directly and only from the use of force that was clearly excessive to the need"; (3) the excessiveness of which was objectively unreasonable; and (4) that the action constituted an unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain. 929 F.2d, at 1015. The court determined that respondents' use of force was objectively unreasonable because no force was required. Furthermore, "[t]he conduct of McMillian and Woods qualified as clearly excessive and occasioned unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain." Ibid. However, Hudson could not prevail on his Eighth Amendment claim because his injuries were "minor" and required no medical attention. Ibid.

We granted certiorari, 499 U.S. ----, 111 S.Ct. 1679, 114 L.Ed.2d 75 (1991), to determine whether the "significant injury" requirement applied by the Court of Appeals accords with the Constitution's dictate that cruel and unusual punishment shall not be inflicted.

II

In Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 106 S.Ct. 1078, 89 L.Ed.2d 251 (1986), the principal question before us was what legal standard should govern the Eighth Amendment claim of an inmate shot by a guard during a prison riot. We based our answer on the settled rule that " 'the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain . . . constitutes cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Eighth Amendment.' " Id., at 319, 106 S.Ct., at 1084 (quoting Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651, 670, 97 S.Ct. 1401, 1412, 51 L.Ed.2d 711 (1977)) (internal quotation omitted).

What is necessary to establish an "unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain," we said, varies according to the nature of the alleged constitutional violation. 475 U.S., at 320, 106 S.Ct., at 1085. For example, the appropriate inquiry when an inmate alleges that prison officials failed to attend to serious medical needs is whether the officials exhibited "deliberate indifference."

Page 6

See Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104, 97 S.Ct. 285, 291, 50 L.Ed.2d 251 (1976). This standard is appropriate because the State's responsibility to provide inmates with medical care ordinarily does not conflict with competing administrative...

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