Lopez v. Smith

Decision Date10 February 2000
Docket NumberA-2R,No. 97-16987,97-16987
Citation203 F.3d 1122,2000 WL 144385
Parties(9th Cir. 2000) MAX LOPEZ, JR., Plaintiff-Appellant, v. G.A. SMITH, Warden; LARRY LOO, Chief Medical Officer; A. ACEVEDO, Chief Dental Officer; PATTERSON, Counselor 4; R. OPINION KEINER, Dentist; M.P. MCCLURE, 4 Appeals Coordinator, Defendants-Appellees
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

COUNSEL: Margo Schlanger, Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the plaintiff-appellant.

Constance Picciano, Deputy Attorney General, Sacramento, California, for the defendants-appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California. Oliver W. Wanger, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-95-05947-OWW/HGB

Before: Procter Hug, Jr., Chief Judge, and Joseph T. Sneed, Harry Pregerson, Stephen Reinhardt, Stephen S. Trott, Ferdinand F. Fernandez, Pamela Ann Rymer, Andrew J. Kleinfeld, Michael Daly Hawkins, A. Wallace Tashima, and Kim McLane Wardlaw, Circuit Judges.

Opinion by Judge Hawkins; Concurrence by Judge Rymer; Dissent by Judge Sneed

HAWKINS, Circuit Judge:

The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 ("PLRA") provides that a district court "shall dismiss" an in forma pauperis complaint "if the court determines that . . . the action or appeal . . . fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted." Pub. L. No. 104-134, S 804(a)(5), 110 Stat. 1321, 1321-74 (1996), codified at 28 U.S.C. S 1915(e)(2) (1996). We took this case en banc to decide whether that provision deprives a district court of its historical discretion to dismiss such a complaint with leave to amend and mandates instead that the dismissal be without leave to amend. Because the PLRA does not clearly state that dismissal must be without leave to amend, we hold that a district court retains its discretion over the terms of a dismissal for failure to state a claim, including whether to make the dismissal with or without leave to amend.


On October 30, 1995, appellant Max Lopez, a prisoner at Corcoran State Prison, filed a section 1983 complaint in forma pauperis against defendants Warden G.A. Smith, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Larry Loo, Chief Dental Officer Acevedo, Dr. Tierney (whose name was misspelled as Keiner in the complaint), Counselor Patterson, and Appeals Coordinator McClure (whose title, but not name, was included in the complaint). Lopez alleged that the defendants (1) knowingly placed him in a cell with a dangerous inmate who subsequently injured him; (2) provided him inadequate medical care while he was recovering from his injury; (3) denied him outdoor exercise during his recovery; and (4) deliberately mistreated him during a bus transfer between prisons.1

Shortly after the complaint was filed, a magistrate judge reviewed Lopez's complaint and found that it stated colorable claims and should be served on the defendants. The magistrate judge also instructed Lopez to "amend his pleadings accordingly as soon as he is able to ascertain the defendant Appeal oordinator's name." On April 2, 1996, Lopez filed a pleading titled "Amend Complaint," which stated that Lopez "request [sic] leave to file an amended complaint." The pleading then named McClure as the Appeals Coordinator and corrected the spelling of one other defendant's name. The pleading also stated that the original complaint had "named a John Doe as the transportation sgt. defendant" and explained that Lopez wanted to "have the John Doe or as mentioned in the Complaint as the transportation sgt. to be put on record."

The magistrate judge treated the pleading as an amended complaint rather than as a request for leave to amend the complaint.2 But because the pleading did not restate the allegations of the original complaint, the magistrate judge characterized it as "woefully incomplete" and stated that although "plaintiff asserts that he named a John Doe transportation sergeant as a defendant in his original complaint . . .[t]his is simply not true. Plaintiff discusses this person, but never names him as a defendant." The magistrate judge also denied leave to amend the complaint further, noting that the court usually provides only one opportunity to amend and that Lopez had failed to make a showing of good cause for additional amendments.

On May 20, 1996, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss and for summary judgment, and Lopez filed a cross motion for summary judgment. On May 27, 1997, the magistrate judge recommended that defendants' motion be granted. The magistrate judge found that Lopez's first and fourth causes of action -that defendants knowingly placed him in a cell with a dangerous inmate and deliberately mistreated him during a prison transfer -did not state a claim on which relief could be granted because Lopez had failed to name as defendants the individuals who caused his alleged injury.3 He therefore recommended that these claims be dismissed without prejudice.4 The magistrate judge then concluded that summary judgment should be entered in favor of defendants on the remaining claims. After reviewing Lopez's objections, the district court adopted the magistrate judge's findings and recommendations in full.

On appeal, Lopez argued that the district court erred in granting the motion to dismiss without giving him an opportunity to amend his complaint. A panel of this court rejected his argument. See Lopez v. Smith, 160 F.3d 567 (9th Cir. 1998). Although the panel acknowledged that longstanding Ninth Circuit case law required a district court to provide a pro se claimant an opportunity to amend, it held that the PLRA had overruled this precedent. Raising the issue sua sponte, the panel concluded that the phrase "shall dismiss " required district courts to dismiss without leave to amend any in forma pauperis complaint that failed to state a claim for relief. The panel maintained that this reading of the statute was consistent with Congress's desire to "reduce docket pressure on federal courts caused by a burgeoning prisoner-litigant caseload." Id. at 570. It also noted that the Sixth Circuit had reached the same conclusion in In Re Prison Litig. Reform Act, 105 F.3d 1131, 1138 (6th Cir. 1997).5

The panel also affirmed the grant of summary judgment. It held that Lopez had presented no evidence that prison officials were deliberately indifferent to his medical needs. It also held that temporary denial of outdoor exercise with no adverse medical effects is not a substantial deprivation of rights in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

We vacated the panel's decision on April 12, 1999 and granted rehearing en banc. See Lopez v. Smith , 173 F.3d 749 (9th Cir. 1999). We now reverse the district court's decision to dismiss without leave to amend. In doing so, we must address the panel's interpretation of the PLRA. Contrary to the suggestion in Judge Rymer's concurrence, we have jurisdiction to consider this issue even though the district court dismissed Lopez's claims pursuant to a 12(b)(6) motion, not the PLRA. This is because a district court's decision must be affirmed if it can be supported on any ground, even one not relied upon by the district court. See United States v. $129,374 In United States Currency, 769 F.2d 583, 586 (9th Cir. 1985); Salmeron v. United States, 724 F.2d 1357, 1364 (9th Cir. 1983). Thus, if the PLRA precludes leave to amend when an in forma pauperis complaint is dismissed for failure to state a claim, the district court's decision must be affirmed.6 Of course, we conclude that the PLRA does not preclude leave to amend. But only by reaching that conclusion can we decline to affirm the district court's ruling.

We also reverse the grant of summary judgment as to both of Lopez's claims.

A. Dismissal For Failure to State a Claim
1. The PLRA

The PLRA contains several provisions that require district courts to screen lawsuits filed by prisoners and to dismiss those suits sua sponte under certain circumstances. Among these provisions is section 804(a)(5), which is codified as part of the in forma pauperis statute at 28 U.S.C. S 1915(e)(2).7 That section reads as follows:

(2) Notwithstanding any filing fee, or any portion thereof, that may have been paid, the court shall dis miss the case at any time if the court determines that - (A) the allegation of poverty is untrue; or

(B) the action or appeal --

(i) is frivolous or malicious;

(ii) fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted; or

(iii) seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief.

Section 1915(e) replaced former section 1915(d), which provided that a district court "may dismiss the case if the allegation of poverty is untrue, or if satisfied that the action is frivolous or malicious." 28 U.S.C. S 1915(d) (1994). The Supreme Court held in Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319 (1989), that section 1915(d) did not authorize district courts to dismiss, sua sponte, a complaint for failure to state a claim, and it is clear that Congress intended that the PLRA overrule that decision. It is also clear that section 1915(e) not only permits but requires a district court to dismiss an in forma pauperis complaint that fails to state a claim. See Barren v. Harrington, 152 F.3d 1193, 1194 (9th Cir. 1998).

However, it is not clear that section 1915(e) precludes a district court from dismissing a complaint with leave to amend. The statutory language says only that a court "shall dismiss" a complaint. It does not say that such a dismissal must be without leave to amend. Indeed, one can only reach that conclusion by reading the phrase "shall dismiss" as "shall dismiss without leave to amend." But nothing in the statute requires us to read the language in a way that would deprive the district courts of their traditional discretion to grant leave to amend.

There is, however, substantial reason not to construe the statutory language in...

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