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GEORGE F. DENTON v. MIKE HERNANDEZ

decided: May 4, 1992.

GEORGE F. DENTON, DIRECTOR OF CORRECTIONS OF CALIFORNIA, ET AL., PETITIONERS
v.
MIKE HERNANDEZ



ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT.

O'connor, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and White, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, and Thomas, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Blackmun, J., joined.

Author: O'connor

JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

The federal in forma pauperis statute, codified at 28 U.S.C. § 1915, allows an indigent litigant to commence a civil or criminal action in federal court without paying the administrative costs of proceeding with the lawsuit. The statute protects against abuses of this privilege by allowing a district court to dismiss the case "if the allegation of poverty is untrue, or if satisfied that the action is frivolous or malicious." 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d). In Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319 (1989), we considered the standard to be applied when determining whether the legal basis of an in forma pauperis complaint is frivolous under § 1915(d). The issues in this case are the appropriate inquiry for determining when an in forma pauperis litigant's factual allegations justify a § 1915(d) dismissal for frivolousness, and the proper standard of appellate review of such a dismissal.

I

Petitioners are fifteen officials at various institutions in the California penal system. Between 1983 and 1985, respondent Mike Hernandez, a state prisoner proceeding pro se, named petitioners as defendants in five civil rights suits filed in forma pauperis. In relevant part, the complaints in these five suits allege that Hernandez was drugged and homosexually raped a total of 28 times by inmates and prison officials at different institutions.*fn1 With few exceptions, the alleged perpetrators are not identified in the complaints, because Hernandez does not claim any direct recollection of the incidents. Rather, he asserts that he found needle marks on different parts of his body, and fecal and semen stains on his clothes, which led him to believe that he had been drugged and raped while he slept.

Hernandez's allegations that he was sexually assaulted on the nights of January 13, 1984, and January 27, 1984, are supported by an affidavit signed by fellow prisoner Armando Esquer (Esquer Affidavit), which states:

"On January 13, 1984, at approximately 7:30 a.m., I was on my way to the shower, when I saw correctional officer McIntyre, the P-2 Unit Officer, unlock inmate Mike Hernandez's cell door and subsequently saw as two black inmates stepped inside his cell. I did not see Officer McIntyre order these two black inmates out of inmate Mike Hernandez's cell after they stepped inside, even though inmate Mike Hernandez was asleep inside. After about ten minutes, I returned from the shower, and I noticed my friend, Mike Hernandez, was being sexually assaulted by the two black inmates. Officer McIntyre returned to lock inmate Mike Hernandez's cell door after the two black inmates stepped out. I watched all this activity from the hallway and my cell door.

On January 27th, 1984, I was again on my way to the shower, when I noticed the same correctional officer as he unlocked inmate Mike Hernandez's cell door, and also saw as two black inmates stepped inside inmate Mike Hernandez's cell. Then I knew right away that both they and Officer McIntyre were up to no good. After this last incident, I became convinced that Officer McIntyre was deliberately unlocking my friend, Mike Hernandez's cell as he [lay] asleep, so that these two black inmates could sexually assault him in his cell." Exhibit H in No. CIV S-85-0084, Brief for Respondent 9.

Hernandez also attempted to amend one complaint to include an affidavit signed by fellow inmate Harold Pierce, alleging that on the night of July 29, 1983, he "witnessed inmate Dushane B-71187 and inmate Milliard B-30802 assault and rape inmate Mike Hernandez as he lay . . . asleep in bed 206 in the N-2 Unit Dorm." See Exhibit G to Motion to Amend Complaint in Hernandez v. Denton, et al., No. CIV S-83-1348 (June 19, 1984), Brief for Respondent 6.

The District Court determined that the five cases were related and referred them to a magistrate, who recommended that the complaints be dismissed as frivolous. The magistrate reasoned that "each complaint, taken separately, is not necessarily frivolous," but that "a different picture emerges from a reading of all five complaints together." Id., at 11. As he explained: "[Hernandez] alleges that both guards and inmates, at different institutions, subjected him to sexual assaults. Despite the fact that different defendants are allegedly responsible for each assault, the purported modus operandi is identical in every case. Moreover, the attacks occurred only sporadically throughout a three year period. The facts thus appear to be 'wholly fanciful' and justify this court's dismissal of the actions as frivolous." Ibid. By order dated May 5, 1986, the District Court adopted the recommendation of the magistrate and dismissed the complaints.

Hernandez appealed the dismissal of three of the five cases (Nos. CIV S-83-0645, CIV S-83-1348, CIV S-85-0084; see n. 1, supra). Reviewing the dismissal de novo, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded. Hernandez v. Denton, 861 F.2d 1421 (1988). In relevant part, Judge Schroeder's lead opinion concluded that a district court could dismiss a complaint as factually frivolous only if the allegations conflicted with judicially noticeable facts, that is, facts "'capable of accurate and ready determination by resort to sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned.'" Id., at 1426 (quoting Fed. Rule Evid. 201). In this case, Judge Schroeder wrote, the court could not dismiss Hernandez's claims as frivolous because it was impossible to take judicial notice that none of the alleged rapes occurred. 861 F.2d, at 1426. Judge Wallace concurred on the ground that circuit precedent required that Hernandez be given notice that his claims were to be dismissed as frivolous and a chance to amend his complaints to remedy the deficiencies. Id., at 1427. Judge Aldisert dissented. He was of the opinion that the allegations were "the hallucinations of a troubled man," id., at 1440, and that no further amendment could save the complaint. Id., at 1439-1440.

We granted petitioners' first petition for a writ of certiorari, 493 U.S. 801 (1989), vacated the judgment, and remanded to the Court of Appeals for consideration of our intervening decision in Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319 (1989). On remand, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed its earlier decision. 929 F.2d 1374 (1991). Judge Schroeder modified her original opinion to state that judicial notice was just "one useful standard" for determining factual frivolousness under § 1915(d), but adhered to her position that the case could not be dismissed because no judicially noticeable fact could contradict Hernandez's claims of rape. Id., at 1376. Judge Wallace and Judge Aldisert repeated their earlier views.

We granted the second petition for a writ of certiorari to consider when an in forma pauperis claim may be dismissed as factually frivolous under § 1915(d). 502 U.S. (1991). We hold that the Court of Appeals incorrectly limited the power granted the courts to dismiss a frivolous case under § ...


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