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Oatess v. Sobolevitch

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT


filed: September 19, 1990; As Corrected September 24, 1990.

DALE OATESS, APPELLANT
v.
NANCY M. SOBOLEVITCH, PHILIP B. FRIEDMAN, HONORABLE WILLIAM E. PFADT, TIMOTHY LUCAS, RALPH LURKER, JUDGE JAMES B. DWYER, MICHELLE M. HAWK, ESQUIRE, NANCY E. GILBERG, ESQUIRE, IRVING MURPHY, ESQUIRE, KENNETH D. CHESTEK, ESQUIRE, APPELLEES

On Appeal From the United States District Court For the Western District of Pennsylvania; D.C. Civil No. 89-00264E.

Becker, Greenberg, Van Dusen, Circuit Judges.

Author: Becker

Opinion OF THE COURT

BECKER, Circuit Judge

This is an appeal from the sua sponte Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) dismissal by the district court of a pro se civil rights complaint after the grant to the plaintiff of leave to proceed in forma pauperis, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a), but before service of the complaint upon the defendants. The appeal requires us to decide whether the district court properly dismissed the complaint under these circumstances. We conclude that it did not. We will therefore vacate the district court's order and remand for further proceedings.

I.

Plaintiff, Dale Oatess, is an inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Cresson, Pennsylvania. On June 12, 1989, he submitted his civil rights complaint and motion to proceed in forma pauperis to the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.*fn1 Oatess' complaint alleged that defendants had conspired to ensure the dismissal of a civil case which he had filed in the Court of Common Pleas of Erie County, Pennsylvania. The defendants in the federal suit were two state court judges, a prosecuting attorney, several court administrators, and several private attorneys.

The district court referred the case to a United States Magistrate under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b). After granting plaintiff leave to proceed in forma pauperis, the magistrate filed a report, recommending dismissal of the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.*fn2 The magistrate notified Oatess, as required under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), that he had ten days in which to file exceptions to the report. Oatess filed timely exceptions, which were reviewed by the magistrate and found to be without merit.*fn3 The district court adopted the report and recommendation, and dismissed the complaint, not as legally frivolous under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d), but for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, under Rule 12(b)(6). There is no indication in the record that summonses were ever issued to plaintiff or complaints served upon defendants. This appeal followed.*fn4

II.

A complaint that is filed in forma pauperis under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a) is subject to dismissal by the district court under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d) only if it is frivolous or malicious. Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 109 S. Ct. 1827, 104 L. Ed. 2d 338 (1989). As Neitzke made clear, a complaint may fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted under Rule 12(b)(6) but not be frivolous within the meaning of § 1915(d). Id. at 1829. In the ordinary course, if the complaint is not frivolous so as to warrant dismissal at the initiation of the suit under § 1915(d), it should proceed as any civil case would and be governed by the usual civil procedures, including Rule 12(b)(6) if appropriate. This reasoning is implicit in Roman v. Jeffes, 904 F.2d 192 (3d Cir. 1990), where we ruled that a district court could not dismiss an action under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d) after the granting of in forma pauperis status and the service of the complaint. As we discuss below, this reasoning also leads us to the conclusion that a district court cannot sua sponte dismiss a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) before service of process.*fn5

While there are no time constraints in Rule 12(b)(6) for the filing of motions or the dismissal of complaints, other procedural requirements suggest that service of process first be accomplished before consideration of dismissal. For instance, Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(a) commands the clerk to issue forthwith a summons to plaintiff upon the filing of a complaint.*fn6 The requirement of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(c)*fn7 that the court shall serve all process also indicates that once leave to proceed in forma pauperis is granted, and the complaint is not dismissed as frivolous under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d), the case should go forward. Dismissal of the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) prior to service is inconsistent with these rules, and it interferes with the orderly process of the case. As we explained in Wilson v. Rackmill, 878 F.2d 772 (3d Cir. 1989).

To be dismissed as frivolous, the complaint must lack an arguable factual or legal basis. If the complaint arguably states a claim, then it should go forward so that the defendants can answer and plaintiff can receive notice of the possibility of Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal and the need to amend his complaint in order to properly state a legal claim.

Id. at 774. To allow dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) prior to service would be to equate this rule with 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d), an interpretation the Supreme Court rejected in Neitzke.

Other concerns arise if dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) occurs before service of process. In bypassing the procedural requirement of service and acting without the opposing party's input, the district court bypasses our tradition of adversarial proceedings. The judge may be perceived as having abandoned the role of neutral arbiter. Ricketts v. Midwest National Bank, 874 F.2d 1177, 1184 (7th Cir. 1989); Tingler v. Marshall, 716 F.2d 1109, 1111 (6th Cir. 1983); Franklin v. State of Oregon, 662 F.2d 1337, 1342 (9th Cir. 1981). While a judge could always give notice that the complaint might not pass muster under Rule 12(b)(6) and invite a responsive memorandum, when this is done before service of process the court may appear to be conducting a private litigation with the plaintiff while the defendant sits on the sidelines. As a matter of law and policy, we think that inappropriate, especially when the plaintiff is proceeding pro se.

Additional problems present themselves when dismissal on the merits occurs before service. Rather than promoting efficient case management, premature dismissal often results in greater inefficiency. While the district court may aim to clear its docket of what appears to be a meritless case and relieve the defendants of the time and expense needed to respond, if an appeal is taken the case shuttles between the district and appellate courts. Lewis v. State of New York, 547 F.2d 4, 6 (2d Cir. 1976). Moreover, the appellate court, too, will likely be without the aid of opposing counsel to clarify the issues. Tingler, 716 F.2d at 1111 n.3; Franklin, 662 F.2d at 1341. As other circuits have found, such results demonstrate the wisdom of requiring service of process before evaluating the sufficiency of the complaint. See Ricketts, 874 F.2d at 1184 (and cases cited).

For the foregoing reasons, the district court's dismissal of the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) prior to service of process was improper. Accordingly, the court's order of dismissal will be vacated and this case remanded for service of process and further proceedings.*fn8

VAN DUSEN, Senior Circuit Judge, concurring in the judgment but dissenting from the holding.

The majority holds that an in forma pauperis complaint may not be dismissed by a district court for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), prior to service of process. The majority acknowledges that Rule 12(b)(6) itself contains no such limitation, majority opinion, typescript at 6, and implicitly acknowledges that sua sponte dismissals are ordinarily allowed, majority opinion, typescript at 6 n.5,*fn1 but gives three reasons for its holding: first, the Supreme Court's holding in Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 109 S. Ct. 1827, 104 L. Ed. 2d 338 (1989), to the effect that a complaint which fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted is not automatically frivolous under 26 U.S.C. § 1915(d), majority opinion, typescript at 5-6; second, the fact that Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(a) provides that "upon the filing of the complaint the clerk shall forthwith issue a summons to the plaintiff or the plaintiff's attorney, who shall be responsible for prompt service of the summons," majority opinion, typescript at 6-7; and third, that allowing sua sponte dismissals prior to service bypasses the tradition of adversarial proceedings and might result in greater judicial inefficiency because an appeal from the sua sponte dismissal might be taken and because the court will not have the benefit of opposing counsel to clarify the issues, majority opinion, typescript at 7-8. I cannot agree, and hence respectfully dissent from the majority's holding.

I first discuss the majority's conclusion that Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(a) precludes Rule 12(b)(6) dismissals prior to service of process. While the majority is certainly correct that Rule 4(a) requires the clerk to issue a summons to plaintiff upon the filing of the complaint and the plaintiff to promptly serve it, Rule 4(a) does not mention the issue of whether or when suits may be dismissed, and I do not see how it follows that the complaint may not be dismissed before process is served for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

While it is true that allowing district courts to use Rule 12(b)(6) to dismiss suits before a summons is issued might result in situations where a summons need not be issued due to the dismissal of the case, I do not find such a situation to be fundamentally incompatible with Rule 4(a).*fn2 It is also true that a situation could arise where a complaint was dismissed after the clerk had issued a summons to the plaintiff but before plaintiff had served it on the defendant. I also do not see how this fundamentally implicates Rule 4(a). If the plaintiff were aware of the dismissal, he would then fail to serve the summons and complaint. If the plaintiff were not aware, he would serve the summons and complaint, and the defendant would appear at the Courthouse to file an answer only to learn that the suit against him had been dismissed, an outcome with which it is unlikely he would be disappointed.*fn3

I also cannot agree with the majority that Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 109 S. Ct. 1827, 104 L. Ed. 2d 338 (1989), precludes Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal of an in forma pauperis complaint before service of process. As I read Neitzke, it holds only that 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d) and Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) are distinct, were enacted for different purposes, and that a complaint which fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, while dismissable under Rule 12(b)(6), is not automatically frivolous for purposes of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d). Were we dealing in some way with a local court rule or policy that allowed only in forma pauperis complaints to be dismissed prior to service of process, I would agree that Neitzke might be implicated. However, there is no such policy or local rule at issue here, and, indeed, the majority has apparently held that all complaints, in forma pauperis or not, may not be dismissed prior to service of process.

Nor can I agree with the majority that our tradition of adversarial proceedings and concerns of judicial economy dictate a conclusion prohibiting pre-service of process dismissals. While it certainly is true that allowing the district court judge to sua sponte dismiss makes the proceeding less adversarial as to the plaintiff vis-a-vis the defendant, and may even create a perception that the judge has abandoned his role of neutral arbiter, the same is true when a judge sua sponte dismisses suits as frivolous under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d), or indeed even when he sua sponte dismisses a case for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted after service of process.*fn4 I also cannot agree with the majority's assertion that permitting sua sponte, pre-service of process, dismissals would impact detrimentally on judicial economy. Rather, allowing a district court to dismiss a case as soon as it becomes apparent that it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted would appear to preserve judicial economy by allowing the district court to rapidly enter a final judgment without the necessity of spending further time on the matter. While the majority is correct that an appeal from such an order may be taken, an appeal may be taken from whichever order finally disposes of a case in the district court.*fn5

Accordingly, because this court has previously concluded that Rule 12(b)(6) dismissals may be made sua sponte, Roman v. Jeffes, 904 F.2d 192, 196 (3d Cir. 1990); Bryson v. Brand Insulations, Inc., 621 F.2d 556, 559 (3d Cir. 1980), because Rule 12(b)(6) does not indicate that there is any requirement that dismissals made pursuant to it occur after service of process, and because I cannot say that sua sponte, pre-service of process, Rule 12(b)(6) dismissals are precluded as a matter of law, I respectfully dissent from the majority's holding that a district court may not dismiss an in forma pauperis complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted prior to service of process.

Although I dissent from the majority's holding, I agree that the dismissal in the present case must be reversed. This is because plaintiff was not given an opportunity to amend his complaint to cure its defects, as is required by Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 109 S. Ct. 1827, 1834, 104 L. Ed. 2d 338 (1989), and Colburn v. Upper Darby Tp., 838 F.2d 663, 666 (3d Cir. 1988), cert. denied, 489 U.S. 1065, 109 S. Ct. 1338 103 L. Ed. 2d 808 (1989).

Therefore, although I dissent from the holding of the court, I join in the judgment.


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