LOCATION: State University of New York Albany
DOCKET NO.: 87-1882
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
CITATION: 490 US 319 (1989)
ARGUED: Feb 22, 1989
DECIDED: May 01, 1989
George A. Rutherglen - on behalf of Respondent
Robert S. Spear - on behalf of Petitioners
Facts of the case
Media for Neitzke v. Williams
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 22, 1989 in Neitzke v. Williams
William H. Rehnquist:
We'll near argument next in No. 87-1882, Dean Neitzke or Neitzke v. Harry Lawrence Williams.
You may proceed whenever you're ready, Mr. Spear.
Robert S. Spear:
Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:
This case was initiated by Mr. Williams, a prisoner at the Indiana State Reformatory, a maximum security institution, tendering the complaint for filing to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.
This complaint was tendered pro se and pursuant to 28 U.S. Code, Section 1915 as a pauper's petition.
It was a 42 U.S. Code, Section 1983 action.
There were five defendants.
The complaint alleged violations of the Eighth Amendment and also due process violations.
The district court dismissed the entire case as frivolous, pursuant to Section 1915(d).
Thereafter, the district court allowed on amendment and again dismissed the case.
The Seventh Circuit affirmed this dismissal as to three of the defendants under both theories, and also as to the remaining two defendants under the due process theory, but revived the action as to the Eighth Amendment against Mr. Neitzke, the hospital administrator, and Dr. Chol, the medical director.
In establishing this case, the Seventh Circuit set forth the following standard:
"A frivolous complaint is one in which the petitioner can make no rational argument in law or facts to support his or her claim for relief. "
And in making this holding, the court relied on the D.C. Circuit case of Brandon v. District of Columbia Board of Parole.
The Seventh Circuit, therefore, clearly held that 28 U.S. Code, Section 1915 (d) is not synonymous with the test under 12(b)(6).
The court specifically agreed with the district court that the Eighth Amendment allegations in this case failed to demonstrate the level of indifference necessary to survive the 12(b) motion under Estelle v. Gamble but nevertheless held that the case should be filed.
It is the Petitioners' contention in this case that a complaint which fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted is frivolous within the meaning of 28 U.S. Code, Section 1915(d).
Section 1915 allows access to the federal courts for the poor, as set forth in decision of this Court in Adkins v. DuPont.
There is an already established standard for 12(b)(6) for pro se complaints which is, when it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.
This Court set forth this standard in Conley, reaffirmed it in Halnes, and indeed in Estelle v. Gamble.
It's Petitioners' contention that this standard is low enough.
The issues in this case deal with how the district courts should handle the congressional mandate of Section 1915(d) not to permit frivolous or malicious complaints under pauper's petitions.
We are not addressing here the variety of methodology by which various circuit courts have tried to handle this problem.
We are talking about the lowest permissible standard as opposed to another standard that may be established in a different circuit.
It is Petitioners' contention that a complaint which does not meet the pro se test for a 12(b)(6) motion is a minimum beneath which no complaint should be allowed to be filed.
When you say it doesn't meet the pro se test, Mr. Spear, you're talking about the rule that pro se complaints are liberally construed in favor of the plaintiff?
Robert S. Spear:
Yes, Your Honor.
The Petitioners in this case would submit that instead a test should be establishing using 12(b)(6) as the standard beneath which the legal sufficiency of the complaint should not be allowed to go for purposes of Section 1915(b).
Mr. Spear, at least on, on the face of the language there appear to be differences between the two provisions, and it isn't really clear to me that they would necessarily be the same.
Do you think that Rule 11, which is designed, according to the notes, to help eliminate frivolous claims, is implicated every time a complaint is dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6)?