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Duncan v. Duckworth

decided: March 13, 1981.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division. No. 79-C-113 -- Allen Sharp, Judge.

Before Fairchild, Chief Judge, Wood and Cudahy, Circuit Judges.

Author: Fairchild

Plaintiff-appellant, Lea Duncan, appeals from the dismissal of his pro se civil rights action seeking damages for the alleged cruel and unusual punishment he suffered as an inmate at Indiana State Prison. The defendants named in his suit are Jack Duckworth, the warden of the prison, and Ronald Freake, the prison hospital administrator. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the judgment of the district court as to Duckworth, but reverse as to Freake.


Duncan filed his complaint on May 7, 1979. He alleges therein that on January 23, 1977, he fell and injured his wrist while playing basketball in the prison gymnasium. He was taken to the prison hospital where his wrist was X-rayed, and he was given two Extra-Strength Tylenols for pain and released. His wrist was again X-rayed on November 18, 1977, after he "went on Sick Call," complaining of severe pain. The X-ray revealed that his wrist was fractured. On December 12, 1977, when Duncan again "went on Sick Call" complaining of pain, he was scheduled for surgery. On March 10, 1978, and again on March 27, 1978, Duncan continued to complain of pain in his wrist and was informed the surgery would be scheduled. Finally, on November 30, 1978, a bone graft was performed on his wrist. Duncan alleges that he suffered extreme pain during the twenty-two months before surgery was performed. He claims that the suffering caused him by this delay constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

In granting the defendants' motion to dismiss, the district court did not rule that Duncan had failed to state any claim whatsoever. On the contrary, based on the facts alleged, the court stated, "a case may be made for some sort of indifference or negligence." However, because the complaint failed to allege facts showing that the defendants were in any way personally responsible for the delay, the district court held that it failed to state a claim against them. On that basis, the court entered judgment for the defendants.


In Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104, 97 S. Ct. 285, 291, 50 L. Ed. 2d 251 (1976), the Supreme Court held that "deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the "unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain,' Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, at 173, 96 S. Ct. 2909, at 2925, 49 L. Ed. 2d 859 (joint opinion), proscribed by the Eighth Amendment." "This is true," said the Court, "whether the indifference is manifested by prison doctors in their response to the prisoner's needs or by prison guards in intentionally denying or delaying access to medical care or intentionally interfering with the treatment once prescribed." Id. 429 U.S. at 104-105, 97 S. Ct. at 291 (footnote omitted).

In light of this holding, we conclude that Duncan has at least stated a claim under § 1983. While the initial failure to properly diagnose his injury may be attributable to no more than an error in judgment, which may or may not be actionable as negligence, the failure to promptly schedule surgery, once the need for it was recognized and in the face of Duncan's repeated complaints of severe pain, raises serious questions regarding the prison hospital officials' concern for their patient. Whether this delay was in fact due to the hospital officials' deliberate indifference to Duncan's serious medical needs remains to be proved, but the facts alleged certainly give rise to at least an inference of such indifference.

Notwithstanding its conclusion that Duncan may be entitled to some kind of relief, the district court dismissed the complaint as to both of the defendants because it failed to allege that they "personally participated in the alleged misconduct." Relying on the rule that liability for money damages under § 1983 will not be imposed vicariously upon a theory of respondeat superior, see Adams v. Pate, 445 F.2d 105, 108 (7th Cir. 1971), the district court ruled that specific allegations of fact showing personal knowledge or involvement on the part of the defendants were necessary to state such a claim. Because Duncan's complaint did not allege such facts, the court concluded that dismissal was proper.

It is true that a defendant's direct personal responsibility for the claimed deprivation of a constitutional right must be established in order for liability to arise under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Adams v. Pate, supra; Stringer v. Rowe, 616 F.2d 993, 1000-1001 (7th Cir. 1980). But by treating this general principle of recovery under § 1983 as a strict rule of pleading and dismissing a complaint which otherwise states a valid claim, we believe the district court ran afoul of the well established requirement that pro se pleadings be held to less stringent standards than those prepared by counsel. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 92 S. Ct. 594, 30 L. Ed. 2d 652 (1972).

Under Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a complaint must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." The accepted rule in appraising the sufficiency of the complaint is that it "should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 78 S. Ct. 99, 101-02, 2 L. Ed. 2d 80 (1957). Where the challenged complaint is one that has been prepared without the benefit of legal expertise, it must be liberally construed to determine whether it meets this test. French v. Heyne, 547 F.2d 994, 996 (7th Cir. 1976).

Applying these principles to Duncan's complaint, we conclude that the district court erred in granting dismissal as to defendant Ronald Freake. His position as administrator of the prison hospital justifies the inference at this stage of the proceeding that he does bear some responsibility for the alleged misconduct. If he later disclaims knowledge and responsibility for the alleged misconduct, if he later disclaims knowledge and responsibility for the delay in treatment suffered by Duncan, he can readily identify those who were responsible.

This approach was recently utilized by the court in Chavis v. Rowe, 643 F.2d 1281 at 1290 (7th Cir. March 11, 1981). Plaintiff in that case, an inmate at the Menard Correctional Center, sued a number of officials of the Illinois Department of Corrections who allegedly violated his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. One of the Eighth Amendment claims related to the conditions under which plaintiff was forced to live during the time he was placed in the segregation unit of the prison. In evaluating that claim, the court noted that "Chavis' failure to name a particular defendant in connection with his Eighth Amendment allegation is no bar to this claim." Id. at 1290. Because "direct individual responsibility for the conditions of segregation imposed on plaintiff must have rested on an official at a relatively high administrative level," the court concluded that the allegations describing those conditions were sufficient to state a claim against defendant ...

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