Miller v. Stanmore

Decision Date09 February 1981
Docket NumberNo. 79-2928,79-2928
Citation636 F.2d 986
PartiesLillian Willene MILLER and Bobby Joe Miller, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Fred STANMORE and Fred A. Frey, Warden, FCI, Defendants-Appellees. . Unit A
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

John Buckley, Texarkana, Tex., for plaintiffs-appellants.

Janet Hellmich, Asst. U. S. Atty., Tyler, Tex., for defendants-appellees.

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

Before INGRAHAM, GEE and TATE, Circuit Judges.

TATE, Circuit Judge:

A pro se complaint filed by a federal prisoner and his wife against federal prison officials was dismissed by the district court for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a cause of action upon which any relief can be granted. The plaintiffs appeal the judgment of dismissal. Finding error in the dismissal on the pleadings, we reverse and remand.

Context Facts

The plaintiff Mrs. Miller was accused by a prison guard, the defendant, Stanmore, of engaging in manual sexual activity with her husband, a federal prisoner (and also a plaintiff), while in the visiting room of Texarkana Federal Correctional Institution (F.C.I.). Based on this accusation, Mrs. Miller was denied visitation rights with her husband for a period of thirty days, and Mr. Miller was deprived of a total of thirty-five days accumulated good time credit.

Mr. and Mrs. Miller subsequently filed suit in federal district court against the guard Stanmore, who made the accusation, and against the prison warden, who imposed the sanctions. Their pro se complaint alleged that they were arbitrarily deprived of visitation privileges and good-time credit in violation of their constitutional right to due process, and that, due to the accusations, Mrs. Miller suffered character assassination and humiliation. The plaintiffs denied the improper conduct, stated that both other visitors in the area as well as another corrections officer could testify that no such conduct had occurred, and alleged that they were denied the opportunity to have these witnesses dispute the version of Stanmore, who claimed to have viewed the improper act. They sought damages, as well as declaratory and injunctive relief.

The defendants' answer constituted a general denial of each of the plaintiffs' allegations. On the basis of these pleadings, the magistrate recommended that the complaint be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The plaintiffs, by now represented by counsel, filed objections to the magistrate's report and requested leave to amend their petition. Without referring to the request for amendment, the district court dismissed the suit on the two bases recommended by the magistrate. This appeal followed.

Review of Dismissal on the Pleadings

In reviewing a complaint dismissed for lack of jurisdiction or for failure to state a claim, the appellate court must consider its allegations as true. Cooper v. Pate, 378 U.S. 546, 84 S.Ct. 1733, 12 L.Ed.2d 1030 (1964); Reeves v. City of Jackson, Mississippi, 532 F.2d 491, 493 (5th Cir. 1976); Spector v. L. Q. Motor Inns, Inc., 517 F.2d 278, 281-82 (5th Cir. 1975), cert. denied 423 U.S. 1055, 96 S.Ct. 786, 46 L.Ed.2d 644 (1976). Moreover, pro se complaints are held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 92 S.Ct. 594, 596, 30 L.Ed.2d 652 (1972).

According to the complaint, Mr. and Mrs. Miller were falsely accused by defendant Stanmore of engaging in improper sexual activity while in the visiting room at F.C.I. Stanmore, in the presence of numerous other visitors, announced that the Millers were to come to the desk at the visiting room facilities. Once there, they were told that the visit was terminated. The following day, the defendant, Warden Frey, notified Mrs. Miller that her visiting privileges had been suspended for a period of thirty days, without giving her an opportunity to contest the action. Mr. Miller was deprived of a total of thirty-five days in good time credits, and was denied further good time credits absent official approval. The plaintiffs deny the conduct allegedly witnessed by a single guard, claim they had several witnesses to support their innocence of the conduct charged, and assert they were denied an opportunity to have these witnesses heard to refute the guard's unfounded accusation.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction

The plaintiffs' complaint set forth a number of federal statutes under which jurisdiction was invoked, 1 including specifically 28 U.S.C. § 1331. 2 According to the report of the magistrate, the district court was nevertheless without jurisdiction to entertain the suit, based upon the allegations of the complaint, for three reasons: (1) the plaintiffs initiated their action under inappropriate federal statutes; (2) as a suit against federal employees, the plaintiffs should have brought the action under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b) and 2671 et seq.; and (3) the exhaustion of administrative remedies, a FTCA prerequisite does not appear to have been satisfied. On this basis, the district court found that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction.

We conclude that the district court was in error and that it had jurisdiction to entertain the suit under both § 1331(a) (federal question jurisdiction) and § 1346(b) (suit against the United States for money damages).

(a) Section 1331 Jurisdiction

Where the complaint seeks recovery directly under the Constitution, federal question jurisdiction is established, and dismissal for lack of jurisdiction is appropriate only (1) where the court decides that the federal claim is immaterial and made solely for the purpose of obtaining jurisdiction, or (2) where the claim is wholly insubstantial and frivolous. Bell v. Hood, 327 U.S. 678, 66 S.Ct. 773, 776, 90 L.Ed. 939 (1946). See also Hilgeman v. National Insurance Company of America, 547 F.2d 298, 300 (5th Cir. 1977). The first exception, that the federal claim is immaterial and made solely for the purpose of obtaining federal jurisdiction, usually arises where a federal claim is joined with primarily state claims, and it does not apply where the constitutional claim, whatever its merit or substance, is the essence of the action. Walsh v. Louisiana High School Athletic Association, 616 F.2d 152, 156 (5th Cir. 1980); Creel v. City of Atlanta, 399 F.2d 777 (5th Cir. 1968). A determination of the second exception requires application of a two-pronged test: a federal question may be insubstantial either (1) because it is obviously without merit, or (2) because it is clearly foreclosed by previous decisions of the Supreme Court. Southpark Square Limited v. City of Jackson, Mississippi, 565 F.2d 338, 341-42 (5th Cir. 1977), cert. denied 436 U.S. 946, 98 S.Ct. 2849, 56 L.Ed.2d 787 (1978).

The crux of the plaintiffs' complaint is that the defendant federal officials violated their federal constitutional rights to due process by imposing sanctions without affording the plaintiffs an opportunity to contest the accusations of the defendant guard, Stanmore. Since it is the alleged constitutional violation which gives rise to damages sought, a material question "arising under" the Constitution is presented in the complaint. Moreover, the federal question presented is neither wholly insubstantial nor frivolous: Supreme Court decisions have recognized jurisdiction on the basis of alleged constitutional violations, including alleged due process violations. See, e. g.: Davis v. Passman, 442 U.S. 228, 99 S.Ct. 2264, 60 L.Ed.2d 846 (1979) (claim which rests on due process clause of fifth amendment states a cause of action and invokes federal question jurisdiction); 3 Bivens v Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388, 91 S.Ct. 1999, 29 L.Ed.2d 619 (1971) (fourth amendment violation by federal officials gives rise to a cause of action for damages that result from the unconstitutional conduct). Nor is this constitutional claim foreclosed, as the district court implied, because the Congress provided a statutory remedy in the Federal Tort Claims Act. Carlson v. Green, 446 U.S. 14, 100 S.Ct. 1468, 64 L.Ed.2d 15 (1980) (decided subsequent to the district court decision below).

On this basis alone, the district court erred in dismissing the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

(b) Section 1346(b) Jurisdiction

Again, in reviewing a complaint dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, we must determine whether the complaint is drawn to seek recovery under a federal statute, and, if so, whether the federal claim is immaterial and made solely for the purpose of obtaining jurisdiction. Spector v. L Q Motor Inns, Inc., supra, 517 F.2d at 281. The magistrate's report recognized that the plaintiffs could have properly sought recovery under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2671 et seq., thereby vesting the district court with jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b). 4 However, since the plaintiffs failed to allege § 2671 as a basis for recovery, the magistrate recommended that the complaint be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Subsequently, the plaintiffs, by now represented by counsel, filed objections to the magistrate's report, and included therein a request for leave to amend the complaint to allege a cause of action under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346 and 2671 et seq.

Nevertheless, the district court ordered the complaint dismissed, without giving the plaintiffs an opportunity to amend.

Leave to amend pleadings "shall be freely given when justice requires" Rule 15(a), Fed.R.Civ.Proc. Additionally, as expressly provided by 28 U.S.C. § 1653, defective allegations of jurisdiction may be amended at the trial and appellate levels. This provision, like rule 15(a), should be liberally construed. Harkless v. Sweeney Independent School District of Sweeney, Texas, 554 F.2d 1353 (5th Cir. 1977),...

To continue reading

Request your trial
342 cases
  • Campbell v. U.S., 91-8744
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit
    • June 15, 1992
    ...Since this appeal is from a dismissal for failure to state a claim, we must accept the plaintiffs' allegations as true. Miller v. Stanmore, 636 F.2d 986 (5th Cir.1981). The district court's dismissal of a complaint is subject to de novo review. McDonald v. Hillsborough County School Board, ......
  • Taylor By and Through Walker v. Ledbetter
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit
    • June 9, 1987
    ...in the light most favorable to the child. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 4 416 U.S. 232, 94 S.Ct. 1683, 40 L.Ed.2d 90 (1974); Miller v. Stanmore, 636 F.2d 986 (5th Cir.1981); Johnson v. Wells, 566 F.2d 1016 (5th Cir.1978). A. Section 1983 We address first the requirements for an action filed under 42 U......
  • Claxton v. SMALL BUSINESS ADMIN. OF US GOVERN.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Southern District of Georgia
    • October 30, 1981
    ...motions that all the allegations of the complaint shall be accepted as true. See Williamson v. Tucker, 645 F.2d at 412; Miller v. Stanmore, 636 F.2d 986 (5th Cir. 1981). If matters outside the pleadings are considered, the motion is automatically converted to motion for summary judgment, th......
  • Johnson v. Dallas Independent School Dist.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit
    • November 17, 1994
    ...109 S.Ct. 1337, 103 L.Ed.2d 808 (1989) (citing Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 94 S.Ct. 1683, 40 L.Ed.2d 90 (1974); Miller v. Stanmore, 636 F.2d 986 (5th Cir.1981); Johnson v. Wells, 566 F.2d 1016 (5th Cir.1978)). This case should not be prematurely dismissed and the plaintiff should be pe......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT