The opinion of the court was delivered by: DITTER
This is a lawsuit brought by two Pennsylvania state prisoners pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Before me are the plaintiffs' applications to proceed in forma pauperis and their motion for the appointment of counsel. Additionally, before this action is allowed to proceed, I must determine whether all or part of it should be dismissed as frivolous under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d). See Roman v. Jeffes, 904 F.2d 192, 195 (3d Cir. 1990).
In their three-count complaint, the plaintiffs, Alonzo Robinson and Russell Davis, allege that in October, 1995, the defendants, various named and unnamed Pennsylvania state prison officials, removed them from their cells, threatened, handcuffed and shackled them, and transported them from the State Correctional Institution at Graterford near Philadelphia to the disciplinary unit in a state prison in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. As residents of the disciplinary unit, Robinson and Davis are subject to more restrictions than prisoners in the general prison population. After his transfer to Camp Hill, prison officials abridged Robinson's ability to practice his religion and limited visits by family members, friends, and a religious advisor. The plaintiffs also allege that the defendants either lost or "stole" their personal property, including some legal materials. Sixteen other prisoners were transferred to disciplinary units in similar fashion.
The complaint further charges that Defendant Martin Horn, the commissioner of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, falsely accused the plaintiffs of committing unspecified crimes while incarcerated and certain Muslim women who visited the prison of being prostitutes. Those accusations were published in the "media."
In count one, the plaintiffs allege that their transfer, the false accusations against them, and the loss of their property violated their rights to due process and equal protection. In count two, they contend that the officials' conduct constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Finally, in count three they allege that Horn's statement that the Muslim women visitors were prostitutes infringed Robinson's and Davis' religious rights, and that the prison officials' restriction of Robinson's access to his religious advisor and family and friends violated his right to practice his religion. As relief, the plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages, and an injunction requiring the defendants to return them to the general prison population.
Both Davis and Robinson have applied for in forma pauperis status under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a) which would allow them to file their complaint without having to pay the $ 120 filing fee required by 28 U.S.C. § 1914(a).
The in forma pauperis statute "is designed to ensure that indigent litigants have meaningful access to the courts." Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 324, 104 L. Ed. 2d 338, 109 S. Ct. 1827 (1989). Consistent with this goal, it allows persons to file lawsuits who state in good faith and under oath that they are unable to pay the cost of filing and maintaining such a suit. Id. Section 1915(d) allows district courts to dismiss lawsuits if the plaintiff's claim of poverty "is not true." I have carefully examined both Robinson's and Davis' applications.
Davis' financial situation is much different. I conclude, based on his application and affidavit, that he is financially able to pay part of the $ 120 filing fee and that his claim of poverty "is not true." Therefore, I will dismiss the complaint as to Davis without prejudice to his right to re-file it once he has paid $ 50 as a filing fee. His affidavit reveals that in October, 1995, he had a balance of $ 680.25 in his prison account. It presently contains $ 93.72. Between October and the date of the affidavit, Davis spent his money on postage, telephone calls, cable television, and goods from the prison commissary. In addition to those expenses, on December 26, 1995, Davis gave a $ 400 cash gift to a person named "Loretta Davis." Plaintiff Davis has no dependents and, as a prisoner, the state pays for his food, clothing, and shelter. My conclusion that Davis is able to afford a $ 50 filing fee is based on the balance in his prison account, that he has no dependents and is not required to pay for his own necessities, and that he has the means to make a $ 400 gift. I note that if he had not made the gift, he would have had sufficient funds in his prison account to pay the entire $ 120 filing fee required of other litigants.
Payment of the partial filing fee will not impose an undue hardship on Davis and the $ 43.72 remaining in his prison account after paying the filing fee will give him an ample amount of money to pay for the small amenities of prison life. See Bullock v. Suomela, 710 F.2d 102, 103 (3d Cir. 1983). In addition, my ordering him to pay $ 50 to commence this suit does not necessarily mean that he must pay all fees associated with this lawsuit. My ruling relates only to the filing fee. If Davis elects to re-file his complaint in accordance with this memorandum and order, he may file a renewed application to proceed in forma pauperis if circumstances change and he is no longer able to pay other costs of this lawsuit.
Davis and Robinson also request that I appoint counsel to represent them. They claim they are unable to afford an attorney, are unfamiliar with the legal system, and need assistance in conducting investigation and discovery. In Tabron v. Grace, 6 F.3d 147 (3d Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 127 L. Ed. 2d 657, 114 S. Ct. 1306 (1994), the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that when deciding whether to appoint counsel for indigent litigants, district courts should consider the merits of the plaintiffs' claim, the plaintiffs' ability to present their case, the difficulty of the legal issues, and the degree to which the case will require extensive factual investigation or turn on credibility determinations. Id. at 156. Because I find that consideration of these factors weighs heavily against appointment of counsel, I will deny the motion.
First, as explained below, while not all legally frivolous, the plaintiffs' claims appear to have little merit. Appointing counsel to pursue cases of little merit will discourage others from taking civil rights cases -- even viable ones -- and waste a scarce resource, volunteer lawyers. Second, the plaintiffs have the ability to present their case. This ability is evidenced by the fact that they filed a clear and articulate complaint and several other legal documents -- all in proper form -- that contain proper captions and properly cite legal authority. Third, this case is unlikely to require extensive factual investigation or involve complex legal issues. The plaintiffs complain about events which they personally witnessed and which involve straightforward factual and legal issues relating to whether the defendants' actions were unconstitutional. Finally, at this point it does not appear that this case will turn on credibility determinations which would require a lawyer's cross-examination skills. It is likely that the plaintiffs' transfer and the conditions in the disciplinary unit are well documented in the prison's files. The existence of such documentation makes it unlikely that the plaintiffs will have to extensively cross-examine the defendants because the defendants are not likely to dispute the fact of the transfer or the conditions in the disciplinary unit.
If appointment of counsel becomes necessary later in this litigation, the plaintiffs may file a renewed motion.
Before allowing the complaint to be filed and served on the defendants, I must determine whether it is frivolous and should be dismissed. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d). The United States Supreme Court has described a frivolous complaint as one which "lacks an arguable basis either in law or fact." Neitzke, 490 U.S. at 325. There is a difference between a frivolous complaint and one that must be dismissed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) because it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. A frivolous claim is one based on an "indisputably meritless legal theory." Deutsch v. United States, 67 F.3d 1080, 1085 (3d Cir. 1995). Such a claim is contrasted with a complaint that merely fails to state a cause of action, but which raises some arguable question of law -- the legal merits of which are open to some legitimate dispute -- even if the district court ultimately rejects the theory of the claim and finds that it must dismiss it under Rule 12(b)(6).
With those principles in mind, I have examined the complaint in this case and will dismiss parts of it as frivolous because those parts are based on indisputably meritless legal theories. I will dismiss count two to the extent that it alleges that Horn's statements to the "media" relating to the plaintiffs' alleged criminal activities constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The plaintiffs do not -- nor could they -- allege that such statements "involve the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain." Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 346, 69 L. Ed. 2d 59, 101 S. Ct. 2392 (1981). Thus, Horn's statement did not violate any of the plaintiffs' constitutional rights. Further, to the extent that count three alleges that Horn's statement that certain Islamic women visiting the prison were prostitutes violated the plaintiffs' rights to practice their religion it is dismissed. Because that statement did not refer to the plaintiffs in any way, either explicitly or implicitly, it could not have violated any of their rights.
I also note that the claim that the defendants' transfer of the plaintiffs from the general prison population into a more restrictive disciplinary unit was unconstitutional is unlikely to succeed. In Sandin v. Conner, 132 L. Ed. 2d 418, 115 S. Ct. 2293 (1995), the Supreme Court held that such transfers do not violate due process when they do not "impose atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life." Thus, in order to prevail, the plaintiffs would have to prove the unlikely proposition that transfer to the disciplinary unit at ...