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Clay v. Martin

decided: January 20, 1975.


Appeal from dismissal by Sylvester J. Ryan, J., in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, of complaint alleging that appellant suffered a heart attack after being subjected to medical experimentation while a federal prisoner. Reversed and remanded with instructions to reinstate the complaint.

Feinberg and Mulligan, Circuit Judges, and Bryan, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Feinberg

FEINBERG, Circuit Judge:

This seemingly simple case raises at its core grave issues about medical experiments performed on prisoners. In 1971, Otis Clay brought a pro se action in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York against three doctors employed by the Public Health Service,*fn1 three high United States Government officials*fn2 and the United States Government, claiming "inhumane treatment" while Clay was a federal prisoner and demanding $2,000,000 damages. The pro se complaint, read liberally, alleges the following: In 1970, Clay participated in a program of drug experimentation conducted by defendants at the Addiction Research Center, a laboratory of the National Institute of Mental Health in Lexington, Kentucky; plaintiff was injected with Naltrexone, a drug thought to prevent narcotics from exerting euphoric and dependency effects; this drug was known by the supervising doctor to be dangerous; plaintiff consented because the doctor assured him that the dosage involved would be too small to cause harm; as a result plaintiff suffered a serious heart attack. In August 1971, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York answered Clay's complaint on behalf of all defendants.

Some two years later, plaintiff obtained his present lawyer and served interrogatories upon defendants. In the ensuing months these were answered or objected to, but in November 1973, after plaintiff's attorney missed a pre-trial conference, the district court dismissed the action for lack of prosecution. When plaintiff's attorney claimed that he had not been notified of the conference, the court granted his motion to restore the case to the civil docket but imposed two conditions. These were that plaintiff's counsel file by specified times a notice of appearance and "an amended complaint containing a short, concise statement of plaintiff's claim." Although the first amended complaint was filed a few days beyond the time called for, these two conditions were met by January 1974. All named defendants again answered, and pleaded ten affirmative defenses.

Apparently prompted by some of the affirmative defenses in the Government's answer, plaintiff moved in February 1974 for permission to file a second amended complaint.*fn3 Defendants refused to agree to further amendment of the complaint. In addition, although an answer had already been filed, defendants moved for dismissal of the first amended complaint on the ground that the court's order restoring the case to the docket had not been obeyed. In March 1974, Judge Sylvester J. Ryan granted defendants' motion to dismiss and denied plaintiff's motion for leave to amend. The basis of the order of dismissal was that:

All of plaintiff's complaints are defective as to venue, subject matter, jurisdiction and improper parties as defendants.*fn4

Plaintiff appeals from these rulings.

Plaintiff's original pro se complaint was, of course, inartistically drafted but alleged enough, if true, to cause serious concern. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 30 L. Ed. 2d 652, 92 S. Ct. 594 (1972); Williams v. Vincent, 508 F.2d 541, slip op. at 1107, 1111 (2d Cir. 1974). In considering both the pro se complaint and the first amended complaint, the question must be whether "it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 2 L. Ed. 2d 80, 78 S. Ct. 99 (1957); Williams v. Vincent, supra. Both complaints alleged a callous disregard for the safety of human subjects in medical experimentation, a problem which has drawn increasing public and governmental attention.*fn5 For example, the National Research Act, signed into law in July 1974, created a National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research.*fn6 The legislative history of the Act indicates that it was passed in reaction to reports of abuses similar to those alleged here. There was testimony about "experimental surgery, prison research, university-centered research abuses, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, genetic manipulation," and so forth. U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News, supra, note 6, at 2168 (Sen. Rep. No. 93-381). Of particular concern to the drafters was that a subject's consent be based on full disclosure, free of any form of coercion. Id. at 2175. In view of these expressions of public policy, a court should not be quick to dismiss on pleading technicalities an action involving experimentation on humans.

Keeping these considerations in mind, we turn to the record before us. The stated reason for dismissing the first amended complaint was that it was "defective as to venue, subject matter, jurisdiction and improper parties." Dismissal for improper venue was wrong. The proposed second amended complaint was already before the court, and it showed that plaintiff resided in New York City. Even if this document could be ignored -- and we believe that doing so would be hypertechnical -- proper venue need not appear on the face of the complaint. 2A J. Moore, Federal Practice paras. 8.06 [4] at 1631, 8.08 at 1645 (2d ed. 1974). The judge's reference to "subject matter, jurisdiction" is unclear. If "jurisdiction" referred to personal jurisdiction over the defendants, dismissal was not justified. At that stage of the proceeding, it should have been assumed that jurisdiction over the individual doctors had been properly obtained, particularly since answers on behalf of all the doctors had been filed as long ago as August 1971. It is possible, as plaintiff points out,*fn7 that the comma in the phrase "subject matter, jurisdiction" is a typographical error and that dismissal was based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Assuming that to be so, the order was nevertheless improper. The first amended complaint does clearly allege at least an action based upon diversity jurisdiction against one or more of the individual doctors for negligence, malpractice and misrepresentation and alleges an action against the United States for negligence under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Finally, the presence of "improper parties" was also an invalid basis for dismissal of the complaint. Misjoinder, if any, does not justify such an extreme sanction. Fed. R. Civ. P. 21. Accordingly, we believe that dismissal of the first amended complaint was improper.

We turn now to the refusal to allow filing of the second amended complaint. It has long and properly been the rule in the federal courts that leave to amend should be freely given in the absence of any undue delay or prejudice to the opposing party. Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a); Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182, 9 L. Ed. 2d 222, 83 S. Ct. 227 (1962); 3 J. Moore, Federal Practice para. 15.08 [4] at 895-96 (2d ed. 1974). The amendments contained in plaintiff's proposed second amended complaint were not unduly delayed and clearly would not cause defendants undue prejudice; indeed, defendants so admitted before the trial court. The amendments changed the allegations of state citizenship of the defendant doctors, furnished the names of the Attorney General, the Acting Surgeon General and the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, stated plaintiff's residence in New York City as the basis for venue, changed the place of the alleged wrong from a prison to the Addiction Research Center, further specified the details of the administration of the drug and stated that plaintiff had presented a claim in writing to defendants which had been denied in writing. Only the last, which was based upon the requirements of 28 U.S.C. §§ 2401(b), 2675(a), was a truly new substantive allegation. The Government, in its brief on appeal, discusses several hypothetical possibilities in an attempt to prove that the complaint cannot possibly state a cause of action. At best, its argument shows that some defendants are not properly in the action. The second amended complaint, even more clearly than the first, alleges an action against the United States for negligence under the Federal Tort Claims Act, and an action against one or more of the individual doctors for negligence, malpractice and misrepresentation. Perhaps the claim of misrepresentation against the doctors alleges an intentional tort that could not form the basis of a suit against the United States under the Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2680(h), but it is more likely pleaded to vitiate the so-called consent defense relied upon by the defendants.*fn8 Even if misrepresentation is used to allege an intentional tort by the doctors, there is nothing improper in pleading inconsistent causes of action. Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(e).

We recognize that this case presents a number of knotty issues, some legal and some factual, e.g., whether there was a true "informed consent" by Clay to the experiment; whether 42 U.S.C. § 233(a)*fn9 protects these Public Health doctors against tort actions for injuries inflicted before its effective date, and whether, if so, the doctors were acting within the scope of their employment. But these are questions that should first be raised in the district court on an adequate record and at an appropriate time. Of course, we do not suggest that the allegations in plaintiff's complaints are necessarily true. We hold only that on the record before us he should be given the opportunity to proceed with his case.

Judgment reversed with directions to reinstate the complaint and allow the proposed ...

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