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NEITZKE V. WILLIAMS, 490 U. S. 319 (1989)

U.S. Supreme Court

Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319 (1989)

Neitzke v. Williams

No. 87-1882

Argued February 22, 1989

Decided May 1, 1989

490 U.S. 319


A provision in the federal in forma pauperis statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d), authorizes courts to dismiss an in forma pauperis claim if, inter alia, "the action is frivolous or malicious." Respondent Williams, a prison inmate, filed a motion to proceed in forma pauperis and a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the District Court, charging that prison officials had violated his Eighth Amendment rights by denying him medical treatment and his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights by transferring him without a hearing to a less desirable cellhouse when he refused to continue working because of his medical condition. The District Court dismissed the complaint sua sponte as frivolous under § 1915(d) on the grounds that Williams had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The Court of Appeals, holding that the District Court had wrongly equated the standard for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6) with the more lenient standard for frivolousness under § 1915(d), which permits dismissal only if a petitioner cannot make any rational argument in law or fact entitling him to relief, affirmed the dismissal of the Fourteenth Amendment claim on the ground that a prisoner clearly has no constitutionally protected liberty or property interest in being incarcerated in a particular institution or wing. However, the court reversed the dismissal of the Eighth Amendment claim as to two of the five defendants, declaring itself unable to state with certainty that Williams was unable to make any rational argument to support his claim.

Held: A complaint filed in forma pauperis is not automatically frivolous within the meaning of § 1915(d) because it fails to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). The two standards were devised to serve distinctive goals, and have separate functions. Under Rule 12(b)(6)'s failure to state a claim standard -- which is designed to streamline litigation by dispensing with needless discovery and factfinding -- a court may dismiss a claim based on a dispositive issue of law without regard to whether it is based on an outlandish legal theory or on a close but ultimately unavailing one, whereas, under § 1915(d)'s frivolousness standard -- which is intended to discourage baseless lawsuits -- dismissal is proper only if the legal theory (as in Williams' Fourteenth Amendment claim) or the factual contentions lack an arguable basis. The considerable common

Page 490 U. S. 320

ground between the two standards does not mean that one invariably encompasses the other, since, where a complaint raises an arguable question of law which the district court ultimately finds is correctly resolved against the plaintiff, dismissal on Rule 12(b)(6) grounds is appropriate, but dismissal on the basis of frivolousness is not. This conclusion flows from § 1915(d)'s role of replicating the function of screening out inarguable claims from arguably meritorious ones played out in the realm of paid cases by financial considerations. Moreover, it accords with the understanding articulated in other areas of law that not all unsuccessful claims are frivolous. It is also consonant with Congress' goal in enacting the in forma pauperis statute of assuring equality of consideration for all litigants. To conflate these standards would deny indigent plaintiffs the practical protections of Rule 12(b)(6) -- notice of a pending motion to dismiss and an opportunity to amend the complaint before the motion is ruled on -- which are not provided when complaints are dismissed sua sponte under § 1915(d). Pp. 490 U. S. 324-331.

837 F.2d 304, affirmed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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