Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Official citation and/or docket number and footnotes (if any) for this case available with purchase.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.



November 30, 1976



Burger, Brennan, Stewart, White, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist, Stevens.

Author: Marshall

[ 429 U.S. Page 98]

 MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent J. W. Gamble, an inmate of the Texas Department of Corrections, was injured on November 9, 1973, while performing a prison work assignment. On February 11, 1974, he instituted this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983,*fn1 complaining of the treatment he received after the injury. Named as defendants were the petitioners, W. J. Estelle, Jr., Director of the Department of Corrections, H. H. Husbands, warden of the prison, and Dr. Ralph Gray, medical director of the Department and chief medical officer of the prison hospital. The District Court, sua sponte, dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.*fn2 The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded with instructions to reinstate the complaint. 516 F.2d 937 (CA5 1975). We granted certiorari, 424 U.S. 907 (1976).

[ 429 U.S. Page 99]


Because the complaint was dismissed for failure to state a claim, we must take as true its handwritten, pro se allegations. Cooper v. Pate, 378 U.S. 546 (1964). According to the complaint, Gamble was injured on November 9, 1973, when a bale of cotton*fn3 fell on him while he was unloading a truck. He continued to work but after four hours he became stiff and was granted a pass to the unit hospital. At the hospital a medical assistant, "Captain" Blunt, checked him for a hernia and sent him back to his cell. Within two hours the pain became so intense that Gamble returned to the hospital where he was given pain pills by an inmate nurse and then was examined by a doctor. The following day, Gamble saw a Dr. Astone who diagnosed the injury as a lower back strain, prescribed Zactirin (a pain reliever) and Robaxin (a muscle relaxant),*fn4 and placed respondent on "cell-pass, cell-feed" status for two days, allowing him to remain in his cell at all times except for showers. On November 12, Gamble again saw Dr. Astone who continued the medication and cell-pass, cell-feed for another seven days. He also ordered that respondent be moved from 1n upper to a lower bunk for one week, but the prison authorities did not comply with that directive.The following week, Gamble returned to Dr. Astone. The doctor continued the muscle relaxant but prescribed a new pain reliever, Febridyne, and placed respondent on cell-pass for seven days, permitting him to remain in his cell except for meals and showers. On November 26, respondent again saw Dr. Astone, who put respondent back on the original pain reliever for five days and continued the cell-pass for another week.

[ 429 U.S. Page 100]

     On December 3, despite Gamble's statement that his back hurt as much as it had the first day, Dr. Astone took him off cell-pass, thereby certifying him to be capable of light work. At the same time, Dr. Astone prescribed Febridyne for seven days. Gamble then went to a Major Muddox and told him that he was in too much pain to work. Muddox had respondent moved to "administrative segregation."*fn5 On December 5, Gamble was taken before the prison disciplinary committee, apparently because of his refusal to work. When the committee heard his complaint of back pain and high blood pressure, it directed that he be seen by another doctor.

On December 6, respondent saw petitioner Gray, who performed a urinalysis, blood test, and blood pressure measurement. Dr. Gray prescribed the drug Ser-Ap-Es for the high blood pressure and more Febridyne for the back pain. The following week respondent again saw Dr. Gray, who continued the Ser-Ap-Es for an additional 30 days. The prescription was not filled for four days, however, because the staff lost it. Respondent went to the unit hospital twice more in December; both times he was seen by Captain Blunt, who prescribed Tiognolos (described as a muscle relaxant). For all of December, respondent remained in administrative segregation.

In early January, Gamble was told on two occasions that he would be sent to the "farm" if he did not return to work. He refused, nonetheless, claiming to be in too much pain. On January 7, 1974, he requested to go on sick call for his back pain and migraine headaches. After an initial refusal, he saw Captain Blunt who prescribed sodium salicylate (a

[ 429 U.S. Page 101]

     pain reliever) for seven days and Ser-Ap-Es for 30 days. Respondent returned to Captain Blunt on January 17 and January 25, and received renewals of the pain reliever prescription both times. Throughout the month, respondent was kept in administrative segregation.

On January 31, Gamble was brought before the prison disciplinary committee for his refusal to work in early January. He told the committee that he could not work because of his severe back pain and his high blood pressure. Captain Blunt testified that Gamble was in "first class" medical condition. The committee, with no further medical examination or testimony, placed respondent in solitary confinement.

Four days later, on February 4, at 8 a.m., respondent asked to see a doctor for chest pains and "blank outs." It was not until 7:30 that night that a medical assistant examined him and ordered him hospitalized. The following day a Dr. Heaton performed an electrocardiogram; one day later respondent was placed on Quinidine for treatment of irregular cardiac rhythm and moved to administrative segregation. On February 7, respondent again experienced pain in his chest, left arm, and back and asked to see a doctor. The guards refused. He asked again the next day. The guards again refused. Finally, on February 9, he was allowed to see Dr. Heaton, who ordered the Quinidine continued for three more days. On February 11, he swore out his complaint.


The gravamen of respondent's § 1983 complaint is that petitioners have subjected him to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment, made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth.*fn6 See Robinson v. California,

[ 429 U.S. Page 102370]

     U.S. 660 (1962). We therefore base our evaluation of respondent's complaint on those Amendments and our decisions interpreting them.

The history of the constitutional prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishments" has been recounted at length in prior opinions of the Court and need not be repeated here. See, e.g., Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 169-173 (1976) (joint opinion of STEWART, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ. (hereinafter joint opinion)); see also Granucci, Nor Cruel and Unusual Punishment Inflicted: The Original Meaning, 57 Calif. L. Rev. 839 (1969). It suffices to note that the primary concern of the drafters was to proscribe "torture[s]" and other "barbar[ous]" methods of punishment. Id., at 842. Accordingly, this Court first applied the Eighth Amendment by comparing challenged methods of execution to concededly inhuman techniques of punishment. See Wilkerson v. Utah, 99 U.S. 130, 136 (1879) ("[I]t is safe to affirm that punishments of torture... and all others in the same line of unnecessary cruelty, are forbidden by that amendment..."); In re Kemmler, 136 U.S. 436, 447 (1890) ("Punishments are cruel when they involve torture or a lingering death...").

Our more recent cases, however, have held that the Amendment proscribes more than physically barbarous punishments. See, e.g., Gregg v. Georgia, supra, at 171 (joint opinion); Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 100-101 (1958); Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349, 373 (1910). The Amendment embodies "broad and idealistic concepts of dignity, civilized standards, humanity, and decency...," Jackson v. Bishop, 404 F.2d 571, 579 (CA8 1968), against which we must evaluate penal measures. Thus, we have held repugnant to the Eighth Amendment punishments which are incompatible with "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society," Trop v. Dulles, supra, at 101; see also Gregg v. Georgia,supra, at 172-173 (joint opinion); Weems v. United States, supra, at 378,

[ 429 U.S. Page 103]

     or which "involve the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain," Gregg v. Georgia, supra, at 173 (joint opinion); see also Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459, 463 (1947); Wilkerson v. Utah, supra, at 136.*fn7

These elementary principles establish the government's obligation to provide medical care for those whom it is punishing by incarceration. An inmate must rely on prison authorities to treat his medical needs; if the authorities fail to do so, those needs will not be met. In the worst cases, such a failure may actually produce physical "torture or a lingering death," In re Kemmler, supra, the evils of most immediate concern to the drafters of the Amendment. In less serious cases, denial of medical care may result in pain and suffering which no one suggests would serve any penological purpose. Cf. Gregg v. Georgia, supra, at 182-183 (joint opinion). The infliction of such unnecessary suffering is inconsistent with contemporary standards of decency as manifested in modern legislation*fn8 codifying the

[ 429 U.S. Page 104]

     commonlaw view that "it is but just that the public be required to care for the prisoner, who cannot by reason of the deprivation of his liberty, care for himself."*fn9

We therefore conclude that deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the "unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain," Gregg v. Georgia, supra, at 173 (joint opinion), proscribed by the Eighth Amendment. This is true whether the indifference is manifested by prison doctors in their response to the prisoner's needs*fn10 or by prison guards in intentionally denying or delaying access to medical

[ 429 U.S. Page 105]

     care*fn11 or intentionally interfering with the treatment once prescribed.*fn12 Regardess of how evidenced, deliberate indifference to a prisoner's serious illness or injury states a cause of action under § 1983.

This conclusion does not mean, however, that every claim by a prisoner that he has not received adequate medical treatment states a violation of the Eighth Amendment. An accident, although it may produce added anguish, is not on that basis alone to be characterized as wanton infliction of unnecessary pain. In Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459 (1947), for example, the Court concluded that it was not unconstitutional to force a prisoner to undergo a second effort to electrocute him after a mechanical malfunction had thwarted the first attempt. Writing for the plurality, Mr. Justice Reed reasoned that the second execution would not violate the Eighth Amendment because the first attempt was an "unforeseeable accident." Id., at 464. Mr. Justice Frankfurter's concurrence, based solely on the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, concluded that since the first attempt had failed because of "an innocent misadventure," id., at 470, the second would not be "'repugnant to the conscience of mankind,'" id., at 471, quoting Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319, 323 (1937).*fn13

Similarly, in the medical context, an inadvertent failure to provide adequate medical care cannot be said to constitute "an unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain" or to be

[ 429 U.S. Page 106]

     "repugnant to the conscience of mankind." Thus, a complaint that a physician has been negligent in diagnosing or treating a medical condition does not state a valid claim of medical mistreatment under the Eighth Amendment. Medical malpractice does not become a constitutional violation merely because the victim is a prisoner. In order to state a cognizable claim, a prisoner must allege acts or omissions sufficiently harmful to evidence deliberate indifference to serious medical needs. It is only such indifference that can offend "evolving standards of decency" in violation of the Eighth Amendment.*fn14


Against this backdrop, we now consider whether respondent's complaint states a cognizable § 1983 claim. The handwritten pro se document is to be liberally construed. As the Court unanimously held in Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519 (1972), a pro se complaint, "however inartfully pleaded," must be held to "less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers" and can only be dismissed for failure to state a claim if it appears "'beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.'" Id., at 520-521, quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957).

[ 429 U.S. Page 107]

     Even applying these liberal standards, however, Gamble's claims against Dr. Gray, both in his capacity as treating physician and as medical director of the Corrections Department, are not cognizable under § 1983. Gamble was seen by medical personnel on 17 occasions spanning a three-month period: by Dr. Astone five times; by Dr. Gray twice; by Dr. Heaton three times; by an unidentified doctor and inmate nurse on the day of the injury; and by medical assistant Blunt six times. They treated his back injury, high blood pressure, and heart problems. Gamble has disclaimed any objection to the treatment provided for his high blood pressure and his heart problem; his complaint is "based solely on the lack of diagnosis and inadequate treatment of his back injury." Response to Pet. for Cert. 4; see also Brief for Respondent 19. The doctors diagnosed his injury as a lower back strain and treated it with bed rest, muscle relaxants, and pain relievers. Respondent contends that more should have been done by way of diagnosis and treatment, and suggests a number of options that were not pursued. Id., at 17, 19. The Court of Appeals agreed, stating: "Certainly an X-ray of [Gamble's] lower back might have been in order and other tests conducted that would have led to appropriate diagnosis and treatment for the daily pain and suffering he was experiencing." 516 F.2d, at 941. But the question whether an X-ray - or additional diagnostic techniques or forms of treatment - is indicated is a classic example of a matter for medical judgment. A medical decision not to order an X-ray, or like measures, does not represent cruel and unusual punishment. At most it is medical malpractice, and as such the proper forum is the state court under the Texas Tort Claims Act.*fn15 The Court of Appeals was in error in holding that the alleged insufficiency of the

[ 429 U.S. Page 108]

     medical treatment required reversal and remand. That portion of the judgment of the District Court should have been affirmed.*fn16

The Court of Appeals focused primarily on the alleged actions of the doctors, and did not separately consider whether the allegations against the Director of the Department of Corrections, Estelle, and the warden of the prison, Husbands, stated a cause of action. Although we reverse the judgment as to the medical director, we remand the case to the Court of Appeals to allow it an opportunity to consider, in conformity with this opinion, whether a cause of action has been stated against the other prison officials.

It is so ordered.

MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN concurs in the judgment of the Court.

MR. JUSTICE STEVENS, dissenting.

Most of what is said in the Court's opinion is entirely consistent with the way the lower federal courts have been processing claims that the medical treatment of prison inmates is so inadequate as to constitute the cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. I have no serious disagreement with the way this area of the law has developed thus far, or with the probable impact of this opinion. Nevertheless, there are three reasons why I am unable to join it. First, insofar as the opinion orders the dismissal of the complaint against the chief medical

[ 429 U.S. Page 109]

     officer of the prison, it is not faithful to the rule normally applied in construing the allegations in a pleading prepared by an uncounseled inmate. Second, it does not adequately explain why the Court granted certiorari in this case. Third, it describes the State's duty to provide adequate medical care to prisoners in ambiguous terms which incorrectly relate to the subjective motivation of persons accused of violating the Eighth Amendment rather than to the standard of care required by the Constitution.


The complaint represents a crude attempt to challenge the system of administering medical care in the prison where Gamble is confined. Fairly construed, the complaint alleges that he received a serious disabling back injury in November 1973, that the responsible prison authorities were indifferent to his medical needs, and that as a result of that indifference he has been mistreated and his condition has worsened.

The indifference is allegedly manifested, not merely by the failure or refusal to diagnose and treat his injury properly, but also by the conduct of the prison staff. Gamble was placed in solitary confinement for prolonged periods as punishment for refusing to perform assigned work which he was physically unable to perform.*fn1 The only medical evidence presented to the disciplinary committee was the statement of a medical assistant that he was in first-class condition, when in fact he was suffering not only from the back sprain but from high blood pressure. Prison guards refused

[ 429 U.S. Page 110]

     to permit him to sleep in the bunk that a doctor had assigned. On at least one occasion a medical prescription was not filled for four days because it was lost by staff personnel. When he suffered chest pains and blackouts while in solitary, he was forced to wait 12 hours to see a doctor because clearance had to be obtained from the warden. His complaint also draws into question the character of the attention he received from the doctors and the inmate nurse in response to his 17 attempts to obtain proper diagnosis and treatment for his condition. However, apart from the medical director who saw him twice, he has not sued any of the individuals who saw him on these occasions. In short, he complains that the system as a whole is inadequate.

On the basis of Gamble's handwritten complaint it is impossible to assess the quality of the medical attention he received. As the Court points out, even if what he alleges is true, the doctors may be guilty of nothing more than negligence or malpractice. On the other hand, it is surely not inconceivable that an overworked, undermanned medical staff in a crowded prison*fn2 is following the expedient course of routinely prescribing nothing more than pain killers when a thorough diagnosis would disclose an obvious need for remedial treatment.*fn3 Three fine judges

[ 429 U.S. Page 111]

     sitting on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit*fn4 thought that enough had been alleged to require some inquiry into the actual facts. If this Court meant what it said in Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, these judges were clearly right.*fn5

[ 429 U.S. Page 112]

     The Haines test is not whether the facts alleged in the complaint would entitle the plaintiff to relief. Rather, it is whether the Court can say with assurance on the basis of the complaint that, beyond any doubt, no set of facts could be proved that would entitle the plaintiff to relief.*fn6 The reasons for the Haines test are manifest. A pro se complaint provides an unsatisfactory foundation for deciding the merits of important questions because typically it is inartfully drawn, unclear, and equivocal, and because thorough pleadings, affidavits, and possibly an evidentiary hearing will usually bring out facts which simplify or make unnecessary the decision of questions presented by the naked complaint.*fn7

[ 429 U.S. Page 113]

     Admittedly, it is tempting to eliminate the meritless complaint at the pleading stage. Unfortunately, this "is another instance of judicial haste which in the long run makes waste," Dioguardi v. Durning, 139 F.2d 774, 775 (CA2 1944) (Clark, J.), cited with approval in Haines v. Kerner, supra, at 521. In the instant case, if the District Court had resisted the temptation of premature dismissal, the case might long since have ended with the filing of medical records or affidavits demonstrating adequate treatment. Likewise, if the decision of the Fifth Circuit reinstating the complaint had been allowed to stand and the case had run its normal course, the litigation probably would have come to an end without the need for review by this Court. Even if the Fifth Circuit had wrongly decided the pleading issue, no great harm would have been done by requiring the State to produce its medical records and move for summary judgment. Instead, the case has been prolonged by two stages of appellate review, and is still not over: The case against two of the defendants may still proceed, and even the

[ 429 U.S. Page 114]

     claims against the prison doctors have not been disposed of with finality.*fn8

The principal beneficiaries of today's decision will not be federal judges, very little of whose time will be saved, but rather the "writ-writers" within the prison walls, whose semiprofessional services will be in greater demand. I have no doubt about the ability of such a semiprofessional to embellish this pleading with conclusory allegations which could be made in all good faith and which would foreclose a dismissal without any response from the State. It is unfortunate that today's decision will increase prisoners' dependence on those writ-writers. See Cruz v. Beto, 405 U.S. 319, 327 n. 7 (REHNQUIST, J., dissenting).


Like the District Court's decision to dismiss the complaint, this Court's decision to hear this case, in violation of its normal practice of denying interlocutory review, see

[ 429 U.S. Page 115]

     R. Stern & E. Gressman, Supreme Court Practice 180 (4th ed. 1969), ill serves the interest of judicial economy.

Frankly, I was, and still am, puzzled by the Court's decision to grant certiorari.*fn9 If the Court merely thought the Fifth Circuit misapplied Haines v. Kerner by 6908able. On the other hand, if the Court thought that instead of a pleading question, the case presented an important constitutional question about the State's duty to provide medical care to prisoners, the crude allegations of this complaint do not provide the kind of factual basis*fn10 the Court normally requires as a predicate for the adjudication of a novel and serious constitutional issue, see, e.g., Rescue Army v. Municipal Court, 331 U.S. 549, 568-575; Ellis v. Dixon, 349 U.S. 458, 464; Wainwright v. City of New Orleans, 392 U.S. 598 (Harlan, J., concurring).*fn11 Moreover, as the Court notes, all the Courts of Appeals to consider the question have reached substantially the same conclusion that the Court adopts. Ante, at 106 n. 14. Since the Court seldom takes a case merely to reaffirm settled law, I fail to understand why it has chosen to make this case an exception to its normal practice.

[ 429 U.S. Page 116]


By its reference to the accidental character of the first unsuccessful attempt to electrocute the prisoner in Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459, see ante, at 105, and by its repeated references to "deliberate indifference" and the "intentional" denial of adequate medical care, I believe the Court improperly attaches significance to the subjective motivation of the defendant as a criterion for determining whether cruel and unusual punishment has been inflicted.*fn12 Subjective motivation may well determine what, if any, remedy is appropriate against a particular defendant. However, whether the constitutional standard has been violated should turn on the character of the punishment rather than the motivation of the individual who inflicted it.*fn13 Whether the conditions in Andersonville were the

[ 429 U.S. Page 117]

     product of design, negligence, or mere poverty, they were cruel and inhuman.

In sum, I remain convinced that the petition for certiorari should have been denied. It having been granted, I would affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Official citation and/or docket number and footnotes (if any) for this case available with purchase.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.