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Seventh Circuit Remands Illinois “Crutch Policy” Case; District Court to Evaluate Class Certification for Damages

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s denial of class certification for injunctive relief, but remanded for further consideration of class certification for damages in an Illinois jail medical care case.

On April 22, 2001, Illinois prisoner Gilbert Arreola broke his ankle playing soccer. Five days later, he was temporarily transferred to the Cook County jail so he could testify in a post-conviction case.

Pursuant to jail policy, Arreola was denied use of his crutches in his living unit, including his cell, the dayroom, bathroom, and shower. Prisoners who have been “prescribed crutches or a cane for any reason (sprain, break, amputation, surgery, fracture, etc.)” may utilize those devices only in the jail’s handicapped unit.

“According to the testimony of two attending physicians, who are employed by Cermak Health Services to provide medical care to the jail’s prisoners, decisions about which inmates are ‘handicapped’” and eligible to reside in the unit “are left to the discretion of corrections officers at the jail; medical professionals, the prison doctors stated, have no authority to change inmates’ housing assignments.”

Arreola requested his crutches, or to be transferred to a unit where he could use them. But his requests were denied and he “was forced to try to walk on his broken ankle, despite repeated orders from the jail’s physicians that the ankle should not bear any weight.” This caused him extreme pain, hindered proper healing of his injury, and caused his cast to deteriorate. On his way back from court, he fell, aggravating his injury and breaking his already-deteriorated cast. He attributes the fall to never learning how to properly use the crutches while denied access to them at the jail.

Arreola filed federal suit, challenging the jail’s “crutch policy.” He also moved for class certification under FRCP 23(b)(2), for injunctive relief, and for class certification under FRCP23(b)(3), for damages. The district court denied certification under FRCP 23(b)(2), finding that Arreola lacked standing to pursue injunctive relief since he was no longer confined in the jail. It also denied certification under FRCP 23(b)(3), with leave to renew, because of doubts that Arreola could show that his damage “claims were typical of the class as a whole, that class issues predominated, and that a class action was a superior, fair, and efficient method for resolving the controversy.” Arreola then sought an interlocutory appeal of the class certification order pursuant to FRCP 23(f).

The Seventh Circuit first determined that Arreola had standing to sue and that the district court did not abuse its discretion in finding relation back appropriate as to the class certification allegations. It then analyzed the denial of certification for injunctive relief, under FRCP 23(b)(2).

The court rejected Defendants’ argument that Arreola failed to satisfy the “numerosity” requirement of FRCP 23(a)(1), noting that one physician who worked just one day each week testified to a potential class in excess of 350 people. As to “commonality,” the court agreed with Arreola “that most of the issues involved in this case, and especially the constitutionality of the Crutch Policy, are common to all potential class members. . . . The County does not seem to contest this point.” The court reached the same conclusion with respect to “typicality,” finding that “once again, the record does not support the County’s accusations that Arreola’s evidence lacks sufficient detail to establish typicality.”

The court found that Arreola’s injunctive relief class “met its demise” on the “adequacy of representation” requirement of Rule 23(a)(4). The court agreed with the lower court that “his interest in prospective relief is too tenuous (and was too tenuous even when he first filed the lawsuit).” He was no longer in the jail when he filed his suit and “the likelihood that he will return to the jail and will once again be suffering from a lower-extremity fracture requiring crutches is too speculative to support a right to an injunction on his part.”

Finally, turning to class certification for damages under FRCP 23(b)(3), the court noted that the district court made “no definitive decision granting or denying
certification.” Therefore, “it would be premature for this court to express an opinion one way or the other on the suitability of Arreola’s case for (b)(3) class treatment.” With that understanding, it remanded for further consideration of damages class certification.

See: Arreola v. Godinez, 546 F.3d 788 (7th Cir. 2008).

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Related legal case

Arreola v. Godinez