Estelle v. Gamble/Dissent Stevens

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Dissenting Opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEVENS, dissenting.

Most of what is said in the Court's opinion is entirely consistent with the way the lower federal courts have been processing claims that the medical treatment of prison inmates is so inadequate as to constitute the cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. I have no serious disagreement with the way this area of the law has developed thus far, or with the probable impact of this opinion. Nevertheless, there are three reasons why I am unable to join it. First, insofar as the opinion orders the dismissal of the complaint against the chief medical [p109] officer of the prison, it is not faithful to the rule normally applied in construing the allegations in a pleading prepared by an uncounseled inmate. Second, it does not adequately explain why the Court granted certiorari in this case. Third, it describes the State's duty to provide adequate medical care to prisoners in ambiguous terms which incorrectly relate to the subjective motivation of persons accused of violating the Eighth Amendment, rather than to the standard of care required by the Constitution.


The complaint represents a crude attempt to challenge the system of administering medical care in the prison where Gamble is confined. Fairly construed, the complaint alleges that he received a serious disabling back injury in November, 1973, that the responsible prison authorities were indifferent to his medical needs, and that, as a result of that indifference, he has been mistreated and his condition has worsened.

The indifference is allegedly manifested not merely by the failure or refusal to diagnose and treat his injury properly, but also by the conduct of the prison staff. Gamble was placed in solitary confinement for prolonged periods as punishment for refusing to perform assigned work which he was physically unable to perform. [1] The only medical evidence presented to the disciplinary committee was the statement of a medical assistant that he was in first-class condition, when in fact he was suffering not only from the back sprain but from high blood pressure. Prison guards refused [p110] to permit him to sleep in the bunk that a doctor had assigned. On at least one occasion, a medical prescription was not filled for four days because it was lost by staff personnel. When he suffered chest pains and blackouts while in solitary, he was forced to wait 12 hours to see a doctor because clearance had to be obtained from the warden. His complaint also draws into question the character of the attention he received from the doctors and the inmate nurse in response to his 17 attempts to obtain proper diagnosis and treatment for his condition. However, apart from the medical director who saw him twice, he has not sued any of the individuals who saw him on these occasions. In short, he complains that the system as a whole is inadequate.

On the basis of Gamble's handwritten complaint, it is impossible to assess the quality of the medical attention he received. As the Court points out, even if what he alleges is true, the doctors may be guilty of nothing more than negligence or malpractice. On the other hand, it is surely not inconceivable that an overworked, undermanned medical staff in a crowded prison [2] is following the expedient course of routinely prescribing nothing more than pain killers when a thorough diagnosis would disclose an obvious need for remedial treatment. [3] Three fine judges [p111] sitting on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit [4] thought that enough had been alleged to require some inquiry into the actual facts. If this Court meant what it said in Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, these judges were clearly right. [5] [p112]

The Haines test is not whether the facts alleged in the complaint would entitle the plaintiff to relief. Rather, it is whether the Court can say with assurance on the basis of the complaint that, beyond any doubt, no set of facts could be proved that would entitle the plaintiff to relief. [6] The reasons for the Haines test are manifest. A pro se complaint provides an unsatisfactory foundation for deciding the merits of important questions, because typically it is inartfully drawn, unclear, and equivocal, and because thorough pleadings, affidavits, and possibly an evidentiary hearing will usually bring out facts which simplify or make unnecessary the decision of questions presented by the naked complaint. [7] [p113]

Admittedly, it tempting to eliminate the meritless complaint at the pleading stage. Unfortunately, this "is another instance of judicial haste which, in the long run, makes waste," Dioguardi v. Durning 139 F.2d 774, 775 (CA2 1944) (Clark, J.), cited with approval in Haines v. Kerner, supra at 521. In the instant case, if the District Court had resisted the temptation of premature dismissal, the case might long since have ended with the filing of medical records or affidavits demonstrating adequate treatment. Likewise, if the decision of the Fifth Circuit reinstating the complaint had been allowed to stand and the case had run its normal course, the litigation probably would have come to an end without the need for review by this Court. Even if the Fifth Circuit had wrongly decided the pleading issue, no great harm would have been done by requiring the State to produce its medical records and move for summary judgment. Instead, the case has been prolonged by two stages of appellate review, and is still not over: the case against two of the defendants may still proceed, and even the [p114] claims against the prison doctors have not been disposed of with finality. [8]

The principal beneficiaries of today's decision will not be federal judges, very little of whose time will be saved, but rather the "writ-writers" within the prison walls, whose semiprofessional services will be in greater demand. I have no doubt about the ability of such a semiprofessional to embellish this pleading with conclusory allegations which could be made in all good faith and which would foreclose a dismissal without any response from the State. It is unfortunate that today's decision will increase prisoners' dependence on those writ-writers. See Cruz v. Beto, 405 U.S. 319, 327 n. 7 (REHNQUIST, J., dissenting).


Like the District Court's decision to dismiss the complaint, this Court's decision to hear this case, in violation of its normal practice of denying interlocutory review, see [p115] R. Stern & E. Gressman, Supreme Court Practice 180 (4th ed.1969), ill-serves the interest of judicial economy. Frankly, I was, and still am, puzzled by he Court's decision to grant certiorari. [9] If the Court merely thought the Fifth Circuit misapplied Haines v. Kerner by reading the complaint to liberally, the grant of certiorari is inexplicable. On the other hand, if the Court thought that, instead of a pleading question, the case presented an important constitutional question about the State's duty to provide medical care to prisoners, the crude allegations of this complaint do not provide the kind of factual basis [10] the Court normally requires as a predicate for the adjudication of a novel and serious constitutional issue, see, e.g., Rescue Army v. Municipal Court, 331 U.S. 549, 568-575; Ellis v. Dixon, 349 U.S. 458, 464; Wainwright v. City of New Orleans, 392 U.S. 598 (Harlan, J., concurring). [11] Moreover, as the Court notes, all the Courts of Appeals to consider the question have reached substantially the same conclusion that the Court adopts. Ante at 106 n. 14. Since the Court seldom takes a case merely to reaffirm settled law, I fail to understand why it has chosen to make this case an exception to its normal practice. [p116]


By its reference to the accidental character of the first unsuccessful attempt to electrocute the prisoner in Louisiana ex rel. Francs v. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459, see ante at 105, and by its repeated references to "deliberate indifference" and the "intentional" denial of adequate medical care, I believe the Court improperly attaches significance to the subjective motivation of the defendant as a criterion for determining whether cruel and unusual punishment has been inflicted. [12] Subjective motivation may well determine what, if any, remedy is appropriate against a particular defendant. However, whether the constitutional standard has been violated should turn on the character of the punishment, rather than the motivation of the individual who inflicted it. [13] Whether the conditions in Andersonville were the [p117] product of design, negligence, or mere poverty, they were cruel and inhuman.

In sum, I remain convinced that the petition for certiorari should have been denied. It having been granted, I would affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.


^ . In his complaint, Gamble alleged that he had been placed in administrative segregation and remained there through December and January. At the end of January, he was placed in solitary confinement. In an affidavit filed in the Court of Appeals the following December, see n. 8, infra, Gamble alleged that, with the exception of one day in which he was taken out of solitary to be brought before the disciplinary committee, he had remained in solitary up to the date of the affidavit.

^ . According to a state legislative report quoted by the Court of Appeals, the Texas Department of Corrections has had at various times one to three doctors to care for 17,000 inmates with occasional part-time help. 516 F.2d 937, 940-941, n. 1 (1975).

^ . This poorly drafted complaint attempts to describe conditions which resemble those reported in other prison systems. For instance, a study of the Pennsylvania prison system reported:

When ill, the prisoner's point of contact with a prison's health care program is the sick call line. Access may be barred by a guard, who refuses to give the convict a hospital pass out of whimsy or prejudice, or in light of a history of undiagnosed complaints. At sick call, the convict commonly first sees a civilian paraprofessional or a nurse, who may treat the case with a placebo without actual examination, history-taking or recorded diagnosis. Even seeing the doctor at some prisons produces no more than aspirin for symptoms, such as dizziness and fainting, which have persisted for years.

Health Law Project, University of Pennsylvania, Health Care and Conditions in Pennsylvania's State Prisons, in American Bar Association Commission on Correctional Facilities and Services, Medical and Health Care in Jails, Prisons, and Other Correctional Facilities: A Compilation of Standards and Materials 71, 81-82 (Aug.1974).

A legislative report on California prisons found:

By far, the area with the greatest problem at the hospital [at one major prison], and perhaps at all the hospitals, was that of the abusive doctor-patient relationship. Although the indifference of M. T. A.s [medical technical assistants] toward medical complaints by inmates is not unique at Folsom, and has been reported continuously elsewhere, the calloused and frequently hostile attitude exhibited by the doctors is uniquely reprehensible. . . .
Typical complaints against [one doctor] were that he would . . . not adequately diagnose or treat a patient who was a disciplinary problem at the prison. . . .

Assembly Select Committee on Prison Reform and Rehabilitation, An Examination of California's Prison Hospitals, 661 (1972).

These statements by responsible observers demonstrate that it is far from fanciful to read a prisoner's complaint as alleging that only pro forma treatment was provided.

^ . The panel included Mr. Justice Clark, a retired member of this Court, sitting by designation, and Circuit Judges Goldberg and Ainsworth.

^ . In Haines, a unanimous Supreme Court admonished the federal judiciary to be especially solicitous of the problems of the uneducated inmate seeking to litigate on his own behalf. The Court said:

Whatever may be the limits on the scope of inquiry of courts into the internal administration of prisons, allegations such as those asserted by petitioner, however inartfully pleaded, are sufficient to call for the opportunity to offer supporting evidence. We cannot say with assurance that under the allegations of the pro se complaint, which we hold to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers, 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 (1957). See Dioguardi v. Durning, 139 F.2d 774 (CA2 1944).

404 U.S. at 520-521. Under that test, the complaint should not have been dismissed without, at the very minimum, requiring some response from the defendants. It appears from the record that, although the complaint was filed in February, instead of causing it to be served on the defendants, as required by Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 4, the Clerk of the District Court referred it to a magistrate, who decided in June that the case should be dismissed before any of the normal procedures were even commenced. At least one Circuit has held that dismissal without service on the defendants is improper, Nichols v. Schubert, 499 F.2d 946 (CA7 1974). The Court's disposition of this case should not be taken as an endorsement of this practice since the question was not raised by the parties.

^ . This is the test actually applied in Haines, for, although the Court ordered the complaint reinstated, it expressly "intimate[d] no view whatever on the merits of petitioner's allegations," 404 U.S. at 521. It is significant that the Court took this approach despite being pressed by the State to decide the merits. As in this case, the State argued forcefully that the facts alleged in the complaint did not amount to a constitutional violation. (Only in one footnote in its 51-page brief did the State discuss the pleading question, Brief for Respondents 22-23, n. 20, in No. 70-5025, O.T. 1971.) Yet this Court devoted not a single word of its opinion to answering the argument that no constitutional violation was alleged.

^ . Thus, Haines teaches that the decision on the merits of the complaint should normally be postponed until the facts have been ascertained. The same approach was taken in Polk Co. v. Glover, 305 U.S. 5, in which the Court reversed the dismissal of a complaint, without intimating any view of the constitutional issues, on "[t]he salutary principle that the essential facts should be determined before passing upon grave constitutional questions. . . ." Id. at 10. See also Borden's Co. v. Baldwin, 293 U.S. 194, 213 (Cardozo and Stone, JJ., concurring in result). This approach potentially avoids the necessity of ever deciding the constitutional issue, since the facts as proved may remove any constitutional question. Alternatively, a more concrete record will be available on which to decide the constitutional issues. See generally Rescue Army v. Municipal Court, 331 U.S. 549, 574-575. Even when constitutional principles are not involved, it is important that "the conceptual legal theories be explored and assayed in the light of actual facts, not as a pleader's supposition," so that courts may avoid "elucidating legal responsibilities as to facts which may never be." Shull v. Pilot Life Ins. Co., 313 F.2d 445, 447 (CA5 1963).

^ . In an affidavit filed in the Court of Appeals, Gamble states that he has been transferred to another prison, placed in solitary confinement, and denied any medical care at all. These conditions allegedly were continuing on December 3, 1974, the date of the affidavit. The Court of Appeals apparently considered these allegations, as shown by a reference to

the fact that [Gamble] has spent months in solitary confinement without medical care and stands a good chance of remaining that way without intervention,

516 F.2d at 941. Presumably the Court's remand does not bar Gamble from pursuing these charges, if necessary through filing a new complaint or formal amendment of the present complaint. The original complaint also alleged that prison officials failed to comply with a doctor's order to move Gamble to a lower bunk, that they put him in solitary confinement when he claimed to be physically unable to work, and that they refused to allow him to see a doctor for two days while he was in solitary. Gamble's medical condition is relevant to all these allegations. It is therefore probable that the medical records will be produced and that testimony will be elicited about Gamble's medical care. If the evidence should show that he in fact sustained a serious injury and received only pro forma care, he would surely be allowed to amend his pleading to reassert a claim against one or more of the prison doctors.

^ .

The only remarkable thing about this case is its presence in this Court. For the case involves no more than the application of well settled principles to a familiar situation, and has little significance except for the respondent. Why certiorari was granted is a mystery to me — particularly at a time when the Court is thought by many to be burdened by too heavy a caseload.

Butz v. Glover Livestock Comm'n Co., 411 U.S. 182, 189 (STEWART, J., dissenting).

^ . As this Court notes, ante at 100 n. 5, even the meaning of some of the terms used in the complaint is unclear.

^ . If this was the reason for granting certiorari, the writ should have been dismissed as improvidently granted when it became clear at oral argument that the parties agreed on the constitutional standard and disagreed only as to its application to the allegations of this particular complaint. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 38, 48.

^ . As the four dissenting Justices in Resweber pointed out:

The intent of the executioner cannot lessen the torture or excuse the result. It was the statutory duty of the state officials to make sure that there was no failure.

329 U.S. at 477 (Burton, J., joined by Douglas, Murphy, and Rutledge, JJ.).

^ . The Court indicates the Eighth Amendment is violated "by prison guards in intentionally denying or delaying access to medical care or intentionally interfering with the treatment once prescribed." Ante at 104-105. If this is meant to indicate that intent is a necessary part of an Eighth Amendment violation, I disagree. If a State elects to impose imprisonment as a punishment for crime, I believe it has an obligation to provide the persons in its custody with a health care system which meets minimal standards of adequacy. As a part of that basic obligation, the State and its agents have an affirmative duty to provide reasonable access to medical care, to provide competent, diligent medical personnel, and to ensure that prescribed care is in fact delivered. For denial of medical care is surely not part of the punishment which civilized nations may impose for crime.

Of course, not every instance of improper health care violates the Eighth Amendment. Like the rest of us, prisoners must take the risk that a competent, diligent physician will make an error. Such an error may give rise to a tort claim, but not necessarily to a constitutional claim. But when the State adds to this risk, as by providing a physician who does not meet minimum standards of competence or diligence or who cannot give adequate care because of an excessive caseload or inadequate facilities, then the prisoner may suffer from a breach of the State's constitutional duty.