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June 4, 2007

Interesting prison conditions per curiam (that should interest Civ Pro teachers)

In addition to the other sentencing action from SCOTUS today, the Justices also vacated a ruling of the Tenth Circuit in a prison conditions case in Erickson v. Pardus, No. 06-7317 (S. Ct. June 4, 2007) (available here).  Here is how the opinion begins:

Imprisoned by the State of Colorado and alleging violations of his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment, William Erickson, the petitioner in this Court, filed suit against prison officials in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado.  He alleged that a liver condition resulting from hepatitis C required a treatment program that officials had commenced but then wrongfully terminated, with life-threatening consequences.  Deeming these allegations, and others to be noted, to be "conclusory," the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed the District Court's dismissal of petitioner's complaint. 198 Fed. Appx. 694, 698 (2006).  The holding departs in so stark manner from the pleading standard mandated by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that we grant review.  We vacate the court's judgment and remand the case for further consideration.

Notably, Justice Thomas has a one-paragraph substantive dissent and the decision indicates separately that "Justice Scalia would deny the petition for a writ of certiorari."  I would guess that 7-2 per curiam opinions are relatively rare, though the substantive issue perhaps made the Court's procedural approach to this case sensible (even though its cert docket needs filling).

Though Erickson will surely get lost in the discussion of other SCOTUS activities today, this decision could be a profound practical significance.  I sense that prisoner suits often can get summarily (and too quickly) dismissed;  Erickson sends a strong message to lower courts to be more careful and conscientious when dealing with these matters.

June 4, 2007 at 01:32 PM | Permalink


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Good to have this decision on the heels of Twombly...

Posted by: | Jun 4, 2007 1:53:03 PM

I believe that summary reversals (decided only on the cert-stage briefs) are usually per curium.

And this does read a little bit like it might have been written in part to correct the Court's recent sloppiness in Bell Atlantic v. Twombly.

Posted by: | Jun 4, 2007 2:41:58 PM

It's rather amusing that this little opinion will go completely unnoticed yet is, on the heels of the Twombly debacle, arguably one of the ten most important opinions of this Term. This per curiam affirms that district courts should not take much liberty with using Twombly to clear their dockets.

Posted by: Aaron | Jun 4, 2007 3:11:02 PM

I think one reason that the Court chose a summary reversal in this case is that the man bringing the case might very well not have lived to the end of briefing in the case if the court failed to act promptly.

He is diagnosed with serious hepatitis C and is deliberately being denied medical treatment by prison officials as punishment for an alleged prison rule violation.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Jun 4, 2007 10:14:58 PM

I agree: it's hard not to read Erickson, issued two weeks after Twombly, as the Supreme Court saying to lower courts: "Don't get carried away."

What's most conspicuous about Erickson is that, though it cites Twombly for the pleading standard in FRCP 8(a)(2), it declines to cite the striking "plausibility standard" language from Twombly, or to apply that test to the complaint in this section 1983 prisoner suit. For one of the big enigmas created by Twombly was whether that opinion's requirement that a Sherman Act plaintiff's complaint plead allegations that make an unlawful conspiracy not merely "possible," but downright "plausible," should extend to complaints in other types of civil actions in federal court.

I thought at the time (and still think, two whole weeks later!) that the best reading of Twombly does not support that conclusion. It's pretty clear that the Court's rejection of the Conley v. Gibson "unless P can prove no set of facts" passage was meant to apply to all federal complaints -- it is straight construction of FRCP 8(a)(2). But the "plausibility" stuff was specific to the factual and legal context in Twombly: a massive antitrust case involving allegations of "conscious parallelism" of a kind that is not illegal without the further element of an agreement to restrain trade.

However, as might have been predicted, in the past two weeks, some federal district courts have already invoked Twombly to apply a tough "plausibility" standard to complaints in cases that are quite different from Twombly. It will be interesting to see whether Erickson's conspicuous omission of that language in a civil rights case now stems that tide.

Posted by: Mike O'Shea | Jun 5, 2007 12:02:14 AM

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