Crawford-El v. Britton
Decided on May 4, 1998; 523 US 574


A. Issues Discussed:  Criminal justice (prison), liability, Civil Rights Act

B. Legal Question Presented:

May lawsuits alleging that a public official violated a prisoner's rights because of an unlawful motive be dismissed because the plaintiff fails to produce a heightened standard of proof (clear and convincing evidence standard instead of the preponderance of the evidence standard) of the unlawful motive?

A. Background:

Petitioner, Leonard Crawford-El, was a prisoner in the District of Columbia's correctional system and was characterized by the court as “litigious” and “outspoken.” Because of overcrowding, Crawford-El was ultimately transferred to a federal prison in Florida. Crawford-El's belongings were transferred separately. Respondent had Crawford-El's brother-in-law (who is also a correctional officer) pick up his belongs rather than ship them. The three boxes of personal belongings were shipped by his mother (with shipping paid for by Crawford-El) and received by Crawford-El months after he arrived in Florida. Crawford-El was initially denied permission to receive his belongings because they were shipped outside prison channels.

Crawford-El filed suit alleging that the diversion of his property which included his legal materials was done in order to interfere with his constitutional right to access the courts. The Complaint was dismissed because Crawford-El could not sufficiently prove actual injury to his right to litigate - this was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

On remand, Crawford-El filed an amended complaint adding a new claim that the diversion of his belongings was motivated by an intent to retaliate against him for exercising his First Amendment right and alleging that Respondent told him, “You’re a prisoner, you don’t have any rights.”

The District Court dismissed the amended complaint because it did not allege direct evidence of unconstitutional motive. Upon review, a panel of Court of Appeals concluded among other things, that in an unconstitutional-motive case a plaintiff must establish defendant’s motive by clear and convincing evidence; the panel referred to Harlow v. Fitzgerald as the legal authority for its finding.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to provide an understanding of the relationship between the holding in Harlow v. Fitzgerald and the plaintiff’s burden when his or her entitlement to relief depends on establishing an improper motive.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Daniel M. Schember argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioner. Walter A. Smith, Jr., Special Deputy Corporation Counsel of the District of Columbia, argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were John M. Ferren, Charles L. Reischel, both from Deputy Corporation Counsel.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Brief unavailable.

In his oral argument and in response to Respondent’s economical argument that if Harlow is not applied frivolous suits will be filed which will have the effect of making prison officials less effective in their jobs, petitioner argues that he is only seeking limited discovery:

“one of the issues we'd want to get into with her is the extent of her role in deciding which prisoners get transferred to Federal penitentiaries, because it - that relates to her belief that, well, if I send them to a Federal penitentiary they won't be entitled to any property, and I think that's an underlying factor that we may want to look into...

Rule 26 enables the court to limit discovery to the needs of the case and to prevent undue burden, and that includes controlling the timing, the methods, and the means of discovery, and allowing the defendant to go first and holding the plaintiff's discovery in abeyance goes a long way to solving this problem.” - Oral Argument of Daniel Schember

Brief unavailable.

"If you permit cases like this to proceed, you will dampen the ardor of public officials… Just let one of these cases linger and occupy the time of a public official, challenging what I still want to call their good faith, just one of them can dampen their ardor with regard to other situations. They will be afraid to take action that might engender another lawsuit, and we would submit that is the core of Harlow, and it is why some kind of special rule needs to be applied… Obviously, you have to first be persuaded that some kind of heightened standard is needed in order to address the problem… First of all… this is a situation where we had asymmetry in the risk of error. That is to say, the Court has already determined in Harlow itself that some meritorious cases must be turned away in order to serve the greater good of ensuring that insubstantial cases will be promptly dismissed, and it's in an asymmetry of error situation the Court has often adopted clear and convincing. His second reason was that this is a case where, just to use his words, motive is easy to allege and hard to disprove. That, too, suggests that we need a benefit of the doubt for public officials, and that's a point the Court made in Harlow itself, where it said at page 814, note 23, dishonest or vindictive motives are readily attributed and as readily believed, actually raising the specter that we may have public officials who are completely innocent of the charge but would be found guilty because of the tenuousness of the kind of evidence we're dealing with.” -Oral Argument of Walter A. Smith

Opposing Side
Arthur B. Spitzer and Steven R. Shapiro for the American Civil Liberties Union wrote a brief in support of the petitioner.

Daniel H. Bromberg and Paul Michael Pohl also filed a brief in support of the petitioners' side.


Jeffrey P. Minear argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. On the brief were Acting Solicitor General Waxman, Assistant Attorney General Hunger, Deputy Solicitor General Kneedler, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Preston, Irving L. Gornstein, Barbara L. Herwig, and Robert Loeb.

Additional briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the State of
Missouri; et al. by Jeremiah W. (Jay) Nixon, Attorney General of Missouri, John R. Munich, Alana M. Barrágan-Scott and Gretchen E. Rowan, Assistant Attorneys General; Charles H. Troutman, Acting Attorney Deputy Attorney General and General of Guam; and by the Attorneys General for their respective jurisdictions as follows: Bill Pryor of Alabama, Bruce M. Botelho of Alaska, Grant Woods of Arizona, Winston Bryant of Arkansas, Daniel E. Lungren of California, Gale A. Norton of Colorado, M. Jane Brady of Delaware,  Robert A. Butterworth of Florida, Margery S. Bronster of Hawaii, Chris Gorman of Kentucky, Richard P. Ieyoub of Louisiana, Joseph Curran, Jr. of Maryland, J. Scott Harshbarger of Massachusetts, Frank J. Kelley of Michigan, Hubert H. Humphrey III of Minnesota, Mike Moore of Mississippi, Joseph P. Mazurek of Montana, Don Stenberg of Nebraska, Frankie Sue Del Papa of Nevada, Dennis C. Vacco of New York, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Betty D. Montgomery of Ohio, W. A. Drew Edmondson of Oklahoma, Hardy Myers of Oregon, D. Michael Fisher of Pennsylvania, Jeffrey B. Pine and Mark W. Barnett of South Dakota, Dan Morales of Texas, Jan Graham William of Utah, H. Sorrell Richard Cullen of Virginia, Julio A. Brady of the Virgin Islands, Darrell V. McGraw, Jr., of West Virginia, and James E. Doyle of Wisconsin.

"In 1968, A. Ernest Fitzgerald testified before a congressional subcommittee about technical difficulties and excessive costs incurred in the development of a new transport plane. His testimony was widely reported and evidently embarrassed his superiors in the Department of Defense. In 1970, his job as a management analyst with the Department of the Air Force was eliminated in a ‘departmental reorganization and reduction in force...' After the conclusion of extended proceedings before the Civil Service Commission in 1973, Fitzgerald filed suit against the President of the United States and some of his aides alleging that they had eliminated his job in retaliation for his testimony. He sought damages on both statutory grounds and 'in a direct action under the Constitution...' When his charges were reviewed in this Court, we considered the defendants' claims to immunity in two separate opinions. In Nixon v. Fitzgerald, we held that a former President is entitled to absolute immunity from damages liability predicated on conduct within the scope of his official duties... In Harlow v. Fitzgerald... we held that the senior aides and advisers of the President were not entitled to absolute immunity... but instead were protected by a qualified immunity standard that would permit the defeat of insubstantial claims without resort to trial...

There are several reasons why we believe that here, unlike Harlow, the proper balance does not justify a judicial revision of the law to bar claims that depend on proof of an official's motive. Initially, there is an important distinction between the ‘bare allegations of malice’… and the allegations of intent that are essential elements of certain constitutional claims… the mere allegation of intent to cause any ‘other injury,’ not just a deprivation of constitutional rights, would have permitted an open-ended inquiry into subjective motivation... When intent is an element of a constitutional violation, however, the primary focus is not on any possible animus directed at the plaintiff; rather, it is more specific, such as an intent to disadvantage all members of a class that includes the plaintiff... or to deter public comment on a specific issue of public importance...

The Court of Appeals' requirement of clear and convincing evidence of improper motive is that court's latest effort to address a potentially serious problem: Because an official's state of mind is ‘easy to allege and hard to disprove,’ insubstantial claims that turn on improper intent may be less amenable to summary disposition than other types of claims against government officials... This category of claims therefore implicates obvious concerns with the social costs of subjecting public officials to discovery and trial, as well as liability for damages...

It is the district judges rather than appellate judges like ourselves who have had the most experience in managing cases in which an official's intent is an element. Given the
wide variety of civil rights and 'constitutional tort' claims that trial judges confront, broad discretion in the management of the factfinding process may be more useful and equitable to all the parties than the categorical rule imposed by the Court of Appeals."

.Held: The judgment of the Court of Appeals is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Justice Vote: 5 Pro vs. 4 Con

  • Stevens, J. Pro (Wrote majority opinion) 
  • Kennedy, A. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Souter, D. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Ginsburg, R. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Breyer, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Con (Joined minority opinion, joined Rehnquist's dissent)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Thomas, C. Con (Joined minority opinion, joined Scalia's dissent)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal. The US Supreme Court vacated and remanded the case in a 5-4 vote, making it an apparent win for the ACLU.