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No Heightened Pleading Standard for 1983 Actions

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has reinstated a pro se
prisoner's action challenging his involuntary commitment to a psychiatric
hospital under 42 U.S.C. 1983. A lower court had dismissed the case for
failure to state an actionable cause.

After 17 years in a New Jersey prison, Gary Alston was involuntarily
committed to the Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital (Greystone). On
December 4, 1995, Alston filed two 1983 complaints in the District Court
for the District of New Jersey. The complaints were horribly written but
discernibly stated: (1) that Alston thought his prison sentence amounted to
cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment; (2) that he
thought his commitment to Greystone was done without due process of law
under the Fourth Amendment; and (3) that he was indigent and wanted the
court to appoint a lawyer to help him.

Four years later the District Court finally appointed Alston a lawyer.
Counsel filed several status reports but never rewrote the complaint. The
District Court dismissed the case under Fed.R.Civ.P.12(b)(6) for failure to
state an actionable claim (failure to satisfy a heightened pleading
standard). Alston appealed.

On appeal the Third Circuit held that civil rights cases can no longer be
subjected to any heightened pleading standard. The appeals court held that
Fed.R.Civ.P., Rule 8, which requires only a "short and plain statement of
the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief [,]" abrogated the
old heightened pleading standard.

The Third Circuit held that, although vaguely written, Alston's complaint
satisfied the simplified pleading requirement of Rule 8. Hence, the
appellate court reversed the District Court's decision and remanded the
case for further proceedings. The Third Circuit also presented an in-depth
analysis of the need for discovery in civil actions brought pro se by
prisoner plaintiffs, which provides a great deal of quotable material. See:
Alston v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229 (3rd Cir. 2004).

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Related legal case

Alston v. Parker

Alston v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229 (3d Cir. 04/05/2004)


[2] No. 03-2683

[3] 363 F.3d 229, 2004

[4] April 05, 2004


[6] Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey (D.C. Civil Nos. 95-cv-06158 and 95-cv-06159) District Judge: Honorable William H. Walls

[7] Joseph B. Young [argued], New Jersey Protection & Advocacy, Inc., 210 South Broad Street, 3rd Floor, Trenton, NJ 08608

[8] Counsel for Appellant.

[9] Joanne Leone, Maria Desautelle [argued], Office of the Attorney General of Nj, Division of Law, 25 Market Street, Trenton, NJ 08625

[10] Counsel for Appellees.

[11] Before: Sloviter, Rendell and Aldisert, Circuit Judges.

[12] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rendell, Circuit Judge.


[14] Argued January 15, 2004



At the end of Gary Marshall Alston's 17-year sentence in a New Jersey prison, he was involuntarily committed to Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital. While there, Alston sued various Greystone employees in a pro se § 1983 complaint, raising several challenges with respect to his prison sentence and his psychiatric commitment. Before the merits of Alston's claims could be tested, the District Court granted a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). The Court concluded that Alston's pleading did not meet the factual specificity requirement for civil rights complaints and dismissed his complaint. Because we hold that the District Court subjected Alston's complaint to a heightened pleading standard no longer applicable in such civil rights cases, we will reverse.


Greystone and requested the appointment of counsel to help advance his case.


The District Court referred the matter to a Magistrate Judge, who granted Alston's application for counsel on March 19, 1996. The threshold requirement for the appointment of counsel to indigent plaintiffs is the arguable legal and factual merit of a complaint. See Tabron v. Grace, 6 F.3d 147 (3d Cir. 1993). The Magistrate Judge recognized two claims in Alston's complaint: 1) a claim that his 17- year term in prison caused him such harm that his sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment; and 2) that his involuntary commitment, as Alston put it "without victim without evidence," violated due process. With respect to the latter claim, the Magistrate Judge cited Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S. 480 (1980), in which the Supreme Court articulated the minimum procedural protections that must be afforded to a prisoner who is transferred to a psychiatric institution. Such procedures include fair notice and a hearing at which evidence may be presented. This Vitek claim is at the heart of Alston's complaint. The Magistrate Judge recognized the legal sufficiency of these claims, but noted at the same time the paucity of factual development. Nevertheless, after considering other factors, including his doubt that Alston could adequately present his case without assistance, he ordered counsel to be appointed.


Four years later, in August of 2000, the District Court finally appointed counsel for Alston.*fn1 By that time, Alston had been released from Greystone and his whereabouts were unknown. Eventually, his counsel successfully located him and entered into a representation agreement on November 7, 2000. One month later, on December 6, 2000, Alston's counsel filed a status update with the District Court. Counsel informed the District Court that it was attempting to locate, and serve Alston's pro se complaint on, the Defendants. A similar status update was fil ed on Febr uary 21, 2001. Notwithstanding these updates, on March 20, 2001, the District Court dismissed the case for lack of prosecution.

[20] Subsequently, Alston's counsel successfully served the complaint on three out of the four named defendants and petitioned the District Court to reconsider its dismissal. On January 29, 2002, the District Court reinstated the case upon Alston's motion and vacated its earlier dismissal order. The Defendants responded by filing a 12(b)(6) motion, invoking various defenses, such as defects in the pleading, witness immunity, qualified immunity, and sovereign immunity.

[21] The District Court determined that Alston's complaint was fatally defective, and on that basis, granted the motion to dismiss. Citing Darr v. Wolfe, 767 F.2d 79, 80 (3d Cir. 1985), the Court observed that it was "well settled" that civil rights complaints must be pled with factual specificity. Concluding that Alston's complaint was unsubstantiated and did not specifically set forth how each defendant infringed Alston's rights, the District Court found that Alston had not met the pleading requirements necessary to pursue a § 1983 action. The District Court further held that Alston had sufficient notice of this pleading defect, referring to the Magistrate Judge's admonition in 1996 that the allegations lacked factual support.*fn2 Accordingly, the District Court entered an order granting the Defendants' 12(b)(6) motion and dismissing the complaint. The order did not specify whether the dismissal was with or without prejudice, but pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 41(b), we treat the dismissal as an "adjudication upon the merits." Subsequently, the District Court rejected Alston's motion for reargument and reconsideration. Alston appeals both the orders dismissing his complaint and denying reconsideration.

[22] I.

[23] Challenging his transfer to Greystone, Alston filed two pro se complaints under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on December 4, 1995. In those complaints, which were later consolidated, Alston sought over $63 million in damages from four Greystone employees, who he contended had violated his rights. The employees included William Parker, Jack Singer, and Lynda Navratil (collectively, "Defendants").*fn3 The complaints, the pertinent text of which we set forth in the margin, are not models of clarity.*fn4 Yet, their thrust is clear enough: Alston questioned the basis of his transfer to Greystone and requested the appointment oif counsel to help advac his case.

[24] II.

[25] Alston's principal contention on appeal is that he should have been permitted to have discovery so as to comply with the fact-pleading standard imposed by the District Court. This Court has long recognized the importance of discovery in the successful prosecution of civil rights complaints. See Colburn v. Upper Darby Township, 838 F.2d 663, 666 (3d Cir. 1988) ("[I]n civil rights cases 'much of the evidence can be developed only through discovery' of materials held by defendant officials." (quoting Frazier v. Southeastern Pa. Transp. Auth., 785 F.2d 65, 68 (3d Cir. 1986)). We acknowledge Alston's need for discovery to present his case, which we discuss more fully below. But, the lack of discovery was not the real barrier blocking Alston's path to relief. Rather, it was the stringent pleading standard presupposed by the parties and the District Court. Our discussion therefore begins by examining the District Court's requirement of factual specificity, which is in conflict with Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)'s simplified notice pleading standard. We will then consider Alston's contention that the District Court should have presented an opportunity to amend the complaint before dismissing it with prejudice. Lastly, we will comment on the right to discovery in actions such as this.

[26] A.

[27] Jurisdiction was proper in the trial court based on 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Our review is predicated on 28 U.S.C. § 1291.

[28] We have plenary review of the District Court's grant of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). Nami v. Fauver, 82 F.3d 63, 65 (3d Cir. 1996). In considering this appeal from a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal, we accept all allegations as true and attribute all reasonable inferences in favor of Alston. Thus, we will affirm the District Court's dismissal only if it appears that Alston could prove no set of facts that would entitle him to relief. Id. at 65. We review the District Court's denial of reconsideration for abuse of discretion. Max's Seafood Café ex rel. Lou-Ann, Inc. v. Quinteros, 176 F.3d 669, 673 (3d Cir. 1999).

[29] B.

[30] The District Court tested Alston's complaint against a pleading requirement for civil rights cases based on our opinion in Darr v. Wolfe. The District Court observed that it was "well settled" that Third Circuit law requires civil rights plaintiffs to plead with particularity.*fn5 We disagree.

[31] Alston's § 1983 complaint should have been considered not under a heightened pleading requirement, but under the more liberal standards of notice pleading. Although once enforced in several circuits, including ours, a fact-pleading requirement for civil rights complaints has been rejected by the Supreme Court in no uncertain terms. Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics Intelligence & Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 168 (1993). In Leatherman, the Court instructed that Rule 9's standard for averments of fraud and mistake should not be imported to the notice pleading standard of Rule 8, which requires only "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Id. More recently, in Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 513 (2002), the Court reaffirmed its holding in Leatherman and stated that "Rule 8(a)'s simplified pleading standard applies to all civil actions, with limited exceptions." Our Court of Appeals has recognized the Supre me C court' s abrogation of a heightened pleading requirement for § 1983 actions. See Ray v. Kertes, 285 F.3d 287, 297 (3d Cir. 2002) ("[T]he Court [has] explained that courts should narrowly interpret statutory language to avoid heightened pleadings standards."); Abbott v. Latshaw, 164 F.3d 141, 149 (3d Cir. 1998) (observing that nothing more is required of § 1983 cases than the notice pleading requirement of Rule 8).

[32] While our ruling in Darr, 767 F.2d at 80, is one of several decisions in which this Court imposed a higher bar for § 1983 pleadings, see, e.g., Frazier, 785 F.2d at 67; Ross v. Meagan, 638 F.2d 646, 650 (3d Cir. 1981); Rotolo v. Borough of Charleroi, 532 F.2d 920, 922 (3d Cir. 1976), none of which have been expressly overruled, these pronouncements preceded and cannot be reconciled with the Supreme Court's holdings in Leatherman and Swierkiewicz. Insofar as our decisions, such as Darr, run counter to the principle of notice pleading in § 1983 actions, they are not controlling. Fundamentally, a heightened pleading requirement for civil rights complaints no longer retains vitality under the Federal Rules.*fn6

[33] Alston's complaint should have been subject only to the "short and plain statement" requirement of Rule 8(a). Courts are to construe complaints so "as to do substantial justice," Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(f), keeping in mind that pro se complaints in particular should be construed liberally. Dluhos v. Strasberg, 321 F.3d 365, 369 (3d Cir. 2003). Comprising only two paragraphs in all, Alston's pro se complaint was "short" and, despite some vagueness, sufficiently "plain." Both the District Court and the Magistrate Judge found that the complaint, construed liberally, set forth cognizable legal claims. Likewise, the Defendants never argued that the complaint ran afoul of the short and plain statement requirement.*fn7 To the contrary, their 12(b)(6) motion was replete with defenses that responded to claims they discerned in Alston's complaint.