Denton v. Hernandez

PETITIONER: Denton, Director Of Corrections Of California, et al.
RESPONDENT: Hernandez
LOCATION: Northern District Court of New York

DOCKET NO.: 90-1846
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1991-1993)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 504 US 25 (1992)
ARGUED: Feb 24, 1992
DECIDED: May 04, 1992

ADVOCATES:
James Ching - on behalf of the Petitioners
Richard W. Nichols - on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case

Question

Media for Denton v. Hernandez

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 24, 1992 in Denton v. Hernandez

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 04, 1992 in Denton v. Hernandez

Byron R. White:

The opinion and judgment in Denton against Hernandez will be announced by Justice O'Connor.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

This case comes to us on certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The respondent, Hernandez, a prisoner proceeding pro se, filed five civil rights suits in forma pauperis against the petitioner, the California Prison Officials, alleging, among other things, that he was drugged and homosexually raped while he slept a total of 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 pursuant to 28 United States Code Section 1915(d) which allows Federal Courts to dismiss an in forma pauperis complaint if satisfied that the action is frivolous.

The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded.

The lead opinion concluded that a court can dismiss a complaint as factually frivolous only if the allegations conflict with judicial and noticeable facts, and that it was impossible to take judicial notice that none of the alleged rapes occurred.

The Court of Appeals adhered to its position when this Court remanded the case for consideration of our intervening decision in Neitzke versus Williams which held that an in forma pauperis complaint is frivolous under Section 1915(d) where it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact.

We hold, in the opinion filed today, that the Court of Appeals incorrectly limited the power granted the court to dismiss a frivolous case under the federal in forma pauperis statute.

In Neitzke, we held that Section 1915(d) gives the courts the unusual power to pierce the vale of the complaint's factual allegations and dismiss those claims whose factual contentions are clearly baseless.

Thus, the court is not bound to accept without question the truth of the plaintiff's allegations.

Although a complaint cannot be dismissed simply because the court finds the allegations to be improbable or unlikely, a finding of factual frivolousness is appropriate when the facts alleged rise to the level of the irrational or the wholly incredible.

Because the frivolousness determination is a discretionary one, we also hold that it was error for the Court of Appeals to review the District Court's dismissal de novo rather than for abuse of discretion.

The case is remanded to the Court of Appeals for application of the proper standard.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion which is joined by Justice Blackmun.