United States: The Spears Hearing: An Under-Utilized Filter For Frivolous Prisoner Lawsuits

In a previous post, I noted the recent twentieth anniversary of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) – highlighting the intent behind the Act (to curb frivolous inmate lawsuits) and the Act's effect (a sixty percent drop in annual prisoner filings). But despite the PLRA, federal dockets remain overburdened by inmate suits. In fact, here in the Fifth Circuit, prisoner appeals still make up over forty percent of the court's caseload – with only a tenth of those appeals ultimately decided in favor of the prisoner plaintiff.

An unsuccessful appeal does not necessarily imply frivolity. But if Congress intended, through the PLRA, to provide courts with mechanisms to separate the wheat from the chaff, then an increased success rate would be expected among the suits that survive the winnowing process. With such a low success rate for prisoner appeals, there seems to be some chaff remaining.

One under- (and sometimes un-) utilized tool available to the judiciary to relieve its dockets of frivolous prisoner claims, while preserving meritorious claims, is the Spears hearing.

In the 1985 case Spears v. McCotter, the Fifth Circuit implemented a pre-suit hearing for in forma pauperis inmates to allow the court to determine whether a claim is legally frivolous under 28 U.S.C.A. § 1915, i.e., "if it lacks an arguable basis in law," "if the facts alleged are clearly baseless," or "when the facts alleged rise to the level of irrational or wholly incredible." The Spears hearing is "in the nature of a motion for more definite statement," and district courts are given "especially broad discretion" here – encouraged to use § 1915 procedures "at the earliest possible stages" of litigation. The hearing is to serve as a "barrier to frivolous suits" for "not only the inarguable legal conclusion, but also the fanciful factual allegation." Another function is to filter actions which are "subject to an obvious meritorious defense, such as a peremptory time bar."

Still, prisoner suits proceed to litigation only to then be dismissed as frivolous.1 Some actions survive a Spears hearing to get there; others are never even subjected to a Spears hearing. This suggests the Spears hearing is not being effectively employed.

To identify and eliminate frivolous claims before they end up in lengthy, expensive litigation, the Spears hearing must be utilized to its full extent. For example, the court may require defendants to provide documentation and other evidence in advance of a Spears hearing to "construct an administrative record to assist the court in determining whether the complaint is frivolous." The court may even invite defendants and defense counsel to participate in the Spears hearing.2 Such defendant involvement allows judges to hear defense testimony and/or limited cross-examination, resulting in a more thorough claim examination and likely a more accurate finding of merit or lack thereof. Courts also have discretion to hold multiple Spears hearings where appropriate to further examine inmate allegations.3 This too allows a more in-depth review of claims and, combined with appropriate judicial oversight to ensure the Spears hearing does not go beyond its intended purposes,4 would help to reduce the number of frivolous prisoner cases.

As the Supreme Court has stated, "Depriving someone of a frivolous claim . . . deprives him of nothing at all, except perhaps the punishment of the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11 sanctions." Increased utilization of the Spears hearing is one way to prevent recreational litigator inmates from wasting valuable judicial resources. Others will be discussed in subsequent posts.


1. E.g., Shaw v. Tucker, 2010 WL 5817660 (N.D. Tex. July 2, 2010); Akin v. Cardenas, 2014 WL 292387 (N.D. Tex. Jan. 27, 2014); Tyson v. LeBlanc, 2010 WL 5375955 (E.D. La. Nov. 19, 2010); Ellis v. Crowe, 2010 WL 724158 (E.D. La. Feb. 19, 2010); Kakosch v. Siemens Corp., 2015 WL 404113 (E.D. La. Jan. 28, 2015).

2. Spears hearings may also be held before defendants are even served – quite appropriate when claims are "fantastic or delusional scenarios which are clearly irrational and incredible," as in Pardue v. FBI, where an inmate sued the FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, the Mexican Mafia, Bank of America, "the state courts," the Dallas County Sheriff's Department medical staff, a college police department, and others, alleging that these parties harassed and forced him to take medications against his will. 2007 WL 983982 (N.D. Tex. March 30, 2007).

3. Courts do not often call for more than one Spears hearing, but did so in Jackson v. City of Beaumont Police Dep't, 958 F.2d 616 (5th Cir. 1992); Wilson v. Stachura, 2012 WL 4602756 (S.D. Miss. Oct. 1, 2012); and Flores v. TDCJ Transitorial Planning Dep't Southern Region Inst. Division, 2015 WL 10436114 (S.D. Tex. Nov. 17, 2015).

4. A trial court's finding of frivolity is subject to an abuse of discretion review standard. Young v. Saint, 990 F.2d 627, 627 (5th Cir. 1993). The Fifth Circuit has reversed a trial court's finding of frivolity, for example, when the lower court made an "improper credibility determination" which is "beyond the scope of Spears hearing." Williams v. Luna, 909 F.2d 121, 124 (1990). See also Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S.25, 33-34 (1992) ("In reviewing a § 1915(d) dismissal for abuse of discretion, it would be appropriate for the Court of Appeals to consider, among other things, whether the plaintiff was proceeding pro se; whether the court inappropriately resolved genuine issues of disputed fact; whether the court applied erroneous legal conclusions; whether the court has provided a statement explaining the dismissal that facilitates 'intelligent appellate review'; and whether the dismissal was with or without prejudice.") (internal citations omitted).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.