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Williams v. Faulkner

decided*fn*: January 12, 1988.

HARRY LAWRENCE WILLIAMS, SR., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
GORDON H. FAULKNER, ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division, No. IP 86 1307 C, Sarah Evans Barker, Judge.

Bauer, Chief Judge, and Coffey and Flaum, Circuit Judges.

Author: Flaum

FLAUM, Circuit Judge.

Harry Lawrence Williams, Sr. appeals from the district's court order dismissing his pro se complaint as frivolous, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d), and denying him leave to proceed in forma pauperis. For the reasons stated below, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand to the district court for further proceedings.

I.

Plaintiff-appellant Harry Williams, Sr. is an inmate in the custody of the Indiana Department of Corrections. A doctor at the Indiana State Prison diagnosed Williams as having a small brain tumor which affects his equilibrium. Because of this condition, the prison doctor placed Williams on "medical idle status" for one year, and noted that "it is very likely that he will have this condition for some time to come."

Upon his transfer to the Indiana State Reformatory on October 18, 1985, Williams notified the Reformatory's medical staff about his brain tumor and the prison doctor's recommendation that he remain on "medical idle status." In his complaint, Williams alleged that on several occasions he asked to be seen by the doctor at the Reformatory for treatment of his tumor. He further alleged that although he was examined several times during the following year, the Reformatory doctors refused to treat Williams for his brain tumor. Williams was also forced to work in the Reformatory's garment manufacturing industry despite the prison doctor's recommended work restriction. In October of 1986, one year after his transfer to the Reformatory, Williams' equilibrium problems worsened; as a result, he refused to continue working in the Reformatory's garment manufacturing industry. The Reformatory Conduct Adjustment Board disciplined Williams for his refusal to work by transferring him to a less desirable cellhouse.

Williams filed a pro se complaint alleging that various Indiana state prison officials violated his rights under the eighth and fourteenth amendments by denying him medical treatment and transferring him to a less desirable cellhouse without due process in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In addition to his complaint, Williams filed a motion to proceed in forma pauperis pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a). The district court dismissed Williams' complaint sua sponte under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d),*fn1 finding the complaint frivolous because it failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The district court also denied Williams leave to proceed in forma pauperis.*fn2

In response, Williams filed a motion to vacate the court's judgment and a motion which the district court construed to be a motion to amend his complaint. The district court held that Williams' amended complaint still failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted and was therefore frivolous within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d); the court affirmed its previous order dismissing Williams' complaint sua sponte. Williams filed a timely notice of appeal.

Because we conclude that the district court applied an incorrect standard for determining when a sua sponte dismissal of a pro se complaint is appropriate under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d), we reverse its judgment in part and remand for further proceedings. Even under the appropriate sua sponte dismissal standard, however, Williams' due process claim is clearly frivolous. We therefore Bum that part of the district court's judgment dismissing Williams' due process claim.

II.

A.

To ensure that indigents have access to the courts, Congress enacted 28 U.S.C. § 1915*fn3 which established a system for in forma pauperis litigation. Congress recognized, however, the danger that without the monetary disincentives to filing suit, the federal courts could be opened to a flood of spurious litigation. Jones v. Morris, 777 F.2d 1277, 1278-79 (7th Cir. 1985), cert. denied, 475 U.S. 1053, 106 S. Ct. 1280, 89 L. Ed. 2d 587 (1986); Brandon v. District of Columbia Board of Parole, 236 U.S. App. D.C. 155, 734 F.2d 56, 59 (D.C. Cir. 1984), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 1127, 83 L. Ed. 2d 804, 105 S. Ct. 811 (1985). To address these competing concerns, Congress gave district courts the authority to dismiss frivolous or malicious in forma pauperis complaints. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d); Jones, 777 F.2d at 1279. A district court's discretion to dismiss pro se, in forma pauperis complaints, however, is limited "in every case by the language of the statute itself which restricts its application to complaints found to be frivolous or malicious." Jones, 777 F.2d at 1279 (quoting Sills v. Bureau of Prisons, 245 U.S. App. D.C. 389, 761 F.2d 792, 794 (D.C. Cir. 1985)). A frivolous complaint is one in which "the petitioner can make no rational ...


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