filed: March 5, 1991; As Corrected March 11, 1991.
On Appeal From the United States District Court For the Middle District of Pennsylvania; D.C. Civ. No. 89-00240.
Becker, Scirica, and Nygaard, Circuit Judges.
This civil rights case, brought by a federal prisoner acting pro se, presents for us a first impression question of the due process rights of a prisoner to the production of documentary evidence at a prison disciplinary hearing. Plaintiff Kenneth McClure Young, II, who lost substantial good time credit as the result of two prison disciplinary hearings, brought suit in the district court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania claiming that the disciplinary hearing officer, defendant Warren Kann, violated his due process rights by refusing to produce a letter in which Young allegedly threatened his cellmate, even though the letter formed part of the basis for the disciplinary charges. Although Young contended that the letter contained no such threat, the district court dismissed the complaint, sua sponte, as legally frivolous under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d).
We hold that Young's due process claims are arguably meritorious, and that the district court erred in dismissing the complaint. Accordingly, the order of the district court will be vacated and the case remanded for service of process on the defendants and for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
While Young was incarcerated at the United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, he was charged with making threats of bodily harm to another inmate and refusing a cell assignment.*fn1 The prison incident report stated that Young had physically and verbally threatened his cellmate when a guard attempted to return him to their cell. Prior to this incident, the report claimed, Young had given to the guard a letter that also contained threats against this cellmate. At the hearing on this charge, Young denied having made any threatening statements, either verbal or written. He further claimed that he had informed Kann that the letter had been confiscated by prison authorities and that it should be produced in order to demonstrate that it contained no threatening remarks.
Because Kann did not have a copy of the letter, he excused Young from the room and called the reporting officer into the hearing room and questioned him concerning the letter's contents. After the reporting officer was excused, Young was called back and informed by Kann that the letter itself was not relevant and that the hearing would proceed. Young reasserted that the letter contained no threats and informed Kann that he was not prepared to proceed unless the letter was produced. Kann nonetheless elected to proceed.
When the hearing resumed, Young informed Kann that, in the days preceding the incident, his cellmate had assaulted him, threatened to rape him, and threatened his life.*fn2 Although Young admitted to banging a milk crate against his cell door, he denied that he had physically or verbally threatened his cellmate during the incident. Young was found guilty and received a sanction of 30 days in disciplinary segregation and forfeiture of 40 days statutory good time.*fn3
Following the hearing, Kann filed a Discipline Hearing Officer Report. Although the report stated that his decision was supported by Young's letter, Kann apparently relied upon the guard's oral summary of its contents, rather than his own review of the letter itself.*fn4 In any event, the copy of the letter provided in Young's appendix contains no threatening remarks of any kind.*fn5
Young's complaint in the district court alleges that, during the prison disciplinary hearing referred to above and at a second hearing, Kann and an unnamed stenographer (Jane Doe) violated his rights under the fifth and eighth amendments. Prior to service of process upon the defendants, however, the district court dismissed the complaint as legally frivolous and certified that any appeal from the order would be frivolous and not taken in good faith pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d).*fn6 This appeal followed. The United States Attorney has entered an appearance and filed a brief.
II. THE FIRST DISCIPLINARY HEARING
Because this case involves only issues of law, our review of the district court's dismissal of Young's complaint as legally frivolous is plenary. Roman v. Jeffes, 904 F.2d 192, 194 (3d Cir. 1990) (citing Wilson v. Rackmill, 878 F.2d 772, 774 (3d Cir. 1989)). Dismissal under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d) is proper when the complaint is based upon an "indisputably meritless legal theory or on completely baseless factual contentions." Wilson, 878 F.2d at 774; see also, Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 327-28, 104 L. Ed. 2d 338, 109 S. Ct. 1827 (1989). This standard is more liberal than that governing cases in ...