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Seventh Circuit Remands Case Concerning Treatment of Prisoner's Hemorrhoids

On July 23, 2012, after expediting a prisoner's appeal, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the district court to likewise act promptly following remand. The appellate court said such action was necessary because the plaintiff was experiencing "excruciating pain" due to his golf ball-sized hemorrhoids.

Illinois state prisoner Anthony Wheeler filed a civil rights complaint in September 2011, alleging that officials at the Pinckneyville Correctional Center, including staff employed by Wexford Health Sources, had ignored his severe, ongoing pain stemming from his hemorrhoids. "Documents submitted with the complaint show he is not fantasizing," the Seventh Circuit wrote.

Wheeler had moved the district court for a preliminary injunction, seeking surgery for his serious medical condition – a recommendation that had been endorsed by two physicians. He also asked the court to appoint counsel for him.

The district court did not act on either motion, nor conduct a preliminary screening pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. Wheeler filed a second and third motion for a preliminary injunction which the district court denied in a terse order, concluding that "federal courts must exercise equitable restraint when asked to take over the administration of a prison, something that is best left to correctional officers and their staff."

The Seventh Circuit held the three reasons provided by the district court for denying Wheeler's motions for a preliminary injunction were "inadequate, individually and collectively."

The Court of Appeals said to the extent the lower court believed that pain never constitutes irreparable injury, the court was mistaken. Also, "[t]o the extent that the [district court] judge believed that his delay in screening the complaint justifies denying relief ... he was very far wrong," the Seventh Circuit stated. "A judge's failure to act earlier is a reason to act now, not a reason to deny an otherwise meritorious motion." Further, the Court of Appeals observed that Wheeler had not asked the district court "to 'take over administration of a prison'; he asked the judge to order the prison to honor his constitutional right to care for a serious medical condition."

The appellate court said Wheeler's complaint should have been screened before the end of September 2011, and ordered the district court to "complete that task swiftly." The Court of Appeals released its ruling only three days after the appeal was submitted to the Court and issued its mandate immediately. On remand, the defendants were to be given "a short time" to respond to Wheeler's preliminary injunction motions, with an evidentiary hearing to be held promptly. The district court was also advised to give serious consideration to appointing counsel to represent Wheeler. The lower court's order was vacated and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Wheeler v. Wexford Health Sources, 689 F.3d 680 (7th Cir. 2012).

On June 24, 2012, the day after the appellate decision was issued, the district court entered an order noting that the Court of Appeals had "remanded the matter with specific instructions that the district court immediately authorize service of process on 'all defendants involved in the treatment of Wheeler's hemorrhoids.'" The court instructed the defendants to enter their respective appearances and file responses to Wheeler's preliminary injunction motions within 36 days. The district court also appointed counsel for Wheeler. See: Wheeler v. Wexford Health Sources, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Ill.), Case No. 3:11-cv-00839-MJR-SCW; 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 102769.

The court dismissed several counts in Wheeler's amended complaint on August 13, 2012, following an initial screening pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. See: Wheeler v. Wexford Health Sources, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 113018.

The magistrate judge considered Wheeler's motions for a preliminary injunction and issued a report and recommendation on September 21, 2012, finding that the motions should be denied. The magistrate noted that Wheeler had been receiving treatment for his hemorrhoids for 14 months while at the Danville Correctional Center, where he is currently housed, crediting the testimony of a prison doctor while finding that "much of Mr. Wheeler's testimony is less than credible."

The magistrate judge concluded that "Wheeler's instant motion [for a preliminary injunction] should be denied because he cannot demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits, or that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm." See: Wheeler v. Wexford Health Sources, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 154976.

The district court adopted the magistrate's report and recommendation on October 16, 2012, stating, "The characterization of the hemorrhoids as being golf ball size was, perhaps, a bit of an exaggeration, and the evidence shows that the situation is not constant, as suggested.... Although it appears Wheeler had a significant flare-up as recently as August 2012, requiring he stay in the infirmary for two weeks, the evidence makes clear that when he has requested treatment at Danville, treatment decisions have been based on medical considerations, with no evidence of deliberate indifference." See: Wheeler v. Wexford Health Sources, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 148682.

Wheeler's case remains pending before the district court, with a trial scheduled for June 16, 2014.

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Related legal case

Wheeler v. Wexford Health Sources