Seventh Circuit Clarifies Standard for Recruiting Counsel in Pro Se Cases
by David Reutter
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held that an Illinois federal district court, like many federal courts in Northern Illinois, used an improper standard when refusing to exercise its discretion to recruit counsel for a pro se prisoner in a civil rights action. The appellate court further found the prisoner was prejudiced by the refusal to recruit counsel.
While at the Stateville Correctional Center in 2008, prisoner Eduardo Navejar was ordered out of the cafeteria line by Lt. Akinola Iyiola for violating prison rules that prohibit prisoners being transported from stopping to speak to other prisoners. Navejar disobeyed the order, became belligerent and punched Iyiola in the face.
Iyiola and other guards wrestled Navejar to the ground and handcuffed him. From that point on, the facts were disputed. Navejar testified that Iyiola kicked him in the forehead near his eye and an unidentified guard stomped his head against the ground. Navejar was then pepper-sprayed by Sgt. Michael Grant.
After Navejar was dragged along the floor and carried down some stairs, Iyiola again pepper-sprayed him. Guards then left Navejar in a segregation cell for a half-hour, screaming in pain, before allowing him to wash off the pepper spray. The next morning Navejar was in the medical unit awaiting examination when Lt. Glen Elberson removed him and told him that he was being transferred to the Pontiac Correctional Center. A doctor later concluded, after administering X-rays, that Navejar suffered only bruises and scratches.
Navejar was found guilty of four disciplinary charges stemming from the incident; his appeal and grievance claiming excessive force were denied. He then sued Iyiola, Grant, Elberson and other unnamed guards. The district court ignored two motions filed by Navejar seeking pro-bono counsel, and denied two similar motions. The court then granted summary judgment to the defendants.
On appeal, the Seventh Circuit found the district court’s denial of Navejar’s motions was based on a legal standard that preceded its en banc ruling in Pruitt v. Mote, 503 F.3d 647 (7th Cir. 2007), which refined the standards for evaluating whether to recruit counsel. Under Pruitt, if a plaintiff makes a reasonable attempt to secure an attorney, the district court must examine “whether the difficulty of the case – factually and legally – exceeds the particular plaintiff’s capacity as a lay person to coherently present it.”
The inquiry does not focus, as the district court had held, solely on the plaintiff’s ability to try the case; it also includes other tasks that “normally attend litigation,” such as “evidence gathering” and “preparing and responding to motions.” Further, the district court improperly considered whether recruiting counsel would affect the case’s outcome. That inquiry, the Court of Appeals held, “is reserved for the appellate court’s review for prejudice.” The Seventh Circuit found more than 100 cases from the Northern District of Illinois that had improperly relied on pre-Pruitt case law.
Finally, the appellate court held that Navejar was prejudiced as a result of the district court’s refusal to recruit counsel, because counsel would have responded to the defendants’ arguments that the district court should disregard Navejar’s “self-serving evidence” and that his excessive force claims were barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1984). Both arguments, which were accepted by the district court, constituted “substantive errors.”
Accordingly, the case was reversed and remanded for further proceedings. See: Navejar v. Iyiola, 718 F.3d 692 (7th Cir. 2013). Following remand the district court appointed counsel to represent Navejar, and the parties entered into settlement discussions in April 2014.
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Related legal case
Navejar v. Iyiola
|718 F.3d 692 (7th Cir. 2013)
|Court of Appeals
|Appeals Court Edition