Hughes v. Rowe

Decision Date10 November 1980
Docket NumberNo. 79-6000,79-6000
Citation101 S.Ct. 173,66 L.Ed.2d 163,449 U.S. 5
PartiesRussell B. HUGHES, Jr. v. Charles J. ROWE et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

[Syllabus from pages 5-6 intentionally omitted]

PER CURIAM.

Petitioner, an inmate of the Illinois State Penitentiary, asks us to review an order dismissing his civil rights action against the respondent corrections officers and directing him to pay counsel fees of $400 for services rendered by the Attorney General of Illinois in representing the respondents in that action.

After granting a motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a constitutional violation, the District Court ordered petitioner to show cause why fees of $400 should not be taxed against him under 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Because he did not respond to that order, the fee award was entered.1 A motion to reconsider was later denied on the ground that petitioner's suit was "meritless." 2 The Court of Appeals disposed of the novel question presented by petitioner by affirming the fee award in an unpublished order. 7 Cir., 605 F.2d 559.3 We now grant the motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis and the petition for certiorari and reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

I

On September 20, 1977, petitioner was charged with a violation of prison regulations and placed in segregation. At a disciplinary hearing two days later, petitioner admitted that he and two other inmates had consumed a homemade alcoholic beverage; his punishment was confinement to segregation for 10 days,4 demotion to C-grade, and loss of 30 days' statutory good time.

Petitioner exhausted his administrative remedies and then filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois on the form used by prisoners who are not represented by counsel. The facts stated on the form raised two federal questions of arguable merit: (1) the decision to place petitioner in a segregation cell on September 20, 1977, was not preceded by a hearing and was not justified by any emergency or other necessity; (2) two of the officers who conducted the disciplinary hearing after petitioner had been in segregation for two days were biased against him.5 Respondents, represented by the State Attorney General's Office, moved to dismiss the complaint, but filed no affidavits denying or explaining the facts alleged by petitioner. After allowing petitioner to file various amendments and additional papers, the District Court dismissed the complaint without taking any evidence. Thereafter the fee award was made.

In its order affirming the action of the District Court, the Court of Appeals correctly noted that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment affords a prisoner certain minimum procedural safeguards before disciplinary action may be taken against him.6 Because the record did not reveal a violation of those safeguards at the hearing on September 22, the Court of Appeals concluded that the complaint had been properly dismissed. However, the Court of Appeals seems to have overlooked the fact, clearly stated in petitioner's brief on appeal, that the disciplinary hearing did not take place until two days after petitioner was placed in segregation on September 20. Nothing in the papers filed on behalf of the respondents purports to justify or explain the segregation of petitioner for two days in advance of the disciplinary hearing.

II

Petitioner's complaint, like most prisoner complaints filed in the Northern District of Illinois, was not prepared by counsel. It is settled law that the allegations of such a complaint, "however inartfully pleaded" are held "to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers. . .." Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520, 92 S.Ct. 594, 595, 30 L.Ed.2d 652 (1972). See also Maclin v. Paulson, 627 F.2d 83, 86 (CA7 1980); French v. Heyne, 547 F.2d 994, 996 (CA7 1976). Such a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief. Haines, supra, at 520-521, 92 S.Ct., at 595, 596.7 And, of course, the allegations of the complaint are generally taken as true for purposes of a motion to dismiss. Cruz v. Beto, 405 U.S. 319, 322, 92 S.Ct. 1079, 1081, 31 L.Ed.2d 263 (1972).

Applying these principles to petitioner's amended complaint, we conclude that all but one of its allegations were properly dismissed for failure to state a claim. Petitioner's allegations of bias and procedural irregularities in the September 22 hearing, unequal treatment, and cruel and unusual punishment, even when liberally construed, were insufficient to require any further proceedings in the District Court. We therefore affirm the dismissal of these claims.

Petitioner's allegation that he had been confined unnecessarily to segregation is of a different character. It can be construed as a contention that his confinement to segregation violated due process because it took place without a prior hearing. It is clear from the facts alleged in the amended complaint that petitioner was confined in segregation for two days before a hearing was held. Indeed, petitioner expressly stated this claim in procedural due process terms in his response to the defendants' motion to dismiss the amended complaint.8

Segregation of a prisoner without a prior hearing may violate due process if the postponement of procedural protections is not justified by apprehended emergency conditions. See Hayes v. Walker, 555 F.2d 625, 633 (CA7), cert. denied, 434 U.S. 959, 98 S.Ct. 491, 54 L.Ed.2d 320 (1977). The amended complaint alleged that segregation was unnecessary in petitioner's case because his offense did not involve violence and he did not present a "clear and present danger." There is no suggestion in the record that immediate segregation was necessitated by emergency conditions. Respondents did make the unsworn assertion that petitioner was placed in segregation on "temporary investigative status," 9 but the significance of this designation is unclear and it does not, without more, dispose of petitioner's procedural due process claim. The District Court, in dismissing the amended complaint, merely concluded that temporary segre- gation pending investigation was not actionable.10 The court cited an Illinois Department of Corrections Administrative Regulation which authorized segregation of prisoners pending investigation of disciplinary matters, where required "in the interest of institutional security and safety." 11 In the absence of any showing that concern for institutional security and safety was the basis for immediate segregation of petitioner without a prior hearing, this regulation does not justify dismissal of petitioner's suit for failure to state a claim.

Our discussion of this claim is not intended to express any view on its merits. We conclude merely that the amended complaint was adequate at least to require some response from respondents, by way of affidavit or otherwise, to petitioner's claim that he was unjustifiably placed in segregation without a prior hearing. Although petitioner's pleadings are prolix and lacking in stylistic precision, this is not a case like Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 97 S.Ct. 285, 50 L.Ed.2d 251 (1976), in which a pro se litigant's detailed recitation of the facts reveals on its face the insufficiency of the complaint. We cannot say with assurance that petitioner can prove no set of facts in support of his claim entitling him to relief. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S., at 521, 92 S.Ct., at 596. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals should have reversed the dismissal of this claim and remanded for further proceedings.12

III

The award of attorney's fees entered against petitioner must be vacated.

In Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 98 S.Ct. 694, 54 L.Ed.2d 648 (1978), we held that the defendant in an action brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 may recover attorney's fees from the plaintiff only if the District Court finds "that the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, even though not brought in subjective bad faith." Id., at 421, 98 S.Ct., at 700. Although arguably a different standard might be applied in a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, we can perceive no reason for applying a less stringent standard. The plaintiff's action must be meritless in the sense that it is groundless or without foundation. The fact that a plaintiff may ultimately lose his case is not in itself a sufficient justification for the assessment of fees. As we stated in Christiansburg:

"To take the further step of assessing attorney's fees against plaintiffs simply because they do not finally pre- vail would substantially add to the risks inhering in most litigation and would undercut the efforts of Congress to promote the vigorous enforcement of the provisions of Title VII. Hence, a plaintiff should not be assessed his opponent's attorney's fees unless a court finds that his claim was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless, or that the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so." 434 U.S., at 422, 98 S.Ct., at 701.

No such finding supported the fee award in this case.

These limitations apply with special force in actions initiated by uncounseled prisoners. Faithful adherence to the principles of Haines v. Kerner dictates that attorney's fees should rarely be awarded against such plaintiffs. The fact that a prisoner's complaint, even when liberally construed, cannot survive a motion to dismiss does not, without more, entitle the defendant to attorney's fees. An unrepresented litigant should not be punished for his failure to recognize subtle factual or legal deficiencies in his claims. As the Court noted in Christiansburg, even if the law or the facts are somewhat questionable or unfavorable at the outset of litigation, a party may have an entirely reasonable ground...

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