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Second Circuit Reinstates Prisoner’s Lawsuit Dismissed for Failure to Comply with F.R.C.P.

by Matt Clarke

On February 15, 2019, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a prisoner’s pro se lawsuit that had been dismissed for failure to comply with Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 8 and 20. In doing so, it held that such sua sponte dismissals should be reviewed de novo. 

Connecticut state prisoner James A. Harnage filed a federal civil rights action alleging that various medical staff at the University of Connecticut Health Center and the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution failed to adequately treat his medical conditions. 

The district court ordered him to amend the complaint because his referral to multiple defendants by group names did not give individual defendants adequate notice of the specific actions for which they were being sued. Harnage submitted an amended complaint. The court then dismissed the case with prejudice under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A for failure to comply with F.R.C.P. Rules 8 and 20, and Harnage appealed.

The Second Circuit noted that Rule 8 requires a pleading to contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,” while Rule 20 permits the joinder of multiple defendants only if the claims against them resulted from the same “transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences.” The appellate court held that, while the amended complaint “may not represent the paradigm of notice pleading, it is not the incomprehensible labyrinthian prolixity of unrelated and vituperative charges” that Rule 8 was intended to curb. 

The district court’s central complaint in this regard was that Harnage failed to include the specific dates of his requests for medical care and when he was seen by medical staff. The Court of Appeals noted that “the failure to allege specific dates does not run afoul of Rule 8, especially where, as here, the plaintiff lacks ready access to his medical records.” 

The Second Circuit also disagreed with the district court’s conclusion that the complaint asserted more than one distinct claim against multiple defendants. “The amended complaint alleges that the defendants’ actions (or inaction) individually and cumulatively resulted in the denial of adequate medical care for Harnage’s hemorrhoid condition. These allegations are thus sufficiently related to constitute a ‘series of transactions and occurrences.’” Further, Harnage’s claim that he was denied adequate medical care in violation of the Eighth Amendment “is clearly a common question of law, if not fact, with respect to the named defendants.”

 However, Harnage had failed to adequately state a claim against three of the 17 named defendants, the appellate court found. It therefore affirmed the judgment with respect to those defendants and reversed as to all other defendants. 

The Court of Appeals wrote in a footnote that “While it is well-established that dismissal under § 1915A for failure to state a claim is reviewed de novo, we have yet to enunciate a standard for reviewing a dismissal under § 1915A for failure to comply with Rules 8 and 20.” It adopted the de novo standard for review for such dismissals in this case, which remains pending on remand. See: Harnage v. Lightner, 916 F.3d 138 (2d Cir. 2019). 

Related legal case

Harnage v. Lightner