Failure to State Rationale in Denying Appointment of Counsel was Abuse of Discretion
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held in July 2014 that the denial of a prisoner’s motions for appointment of counsel in a civil rights action was an abuse of discretion. It also stated the district court had improperly decided a summary judgment motion without resolving a pending motion for more time to conduct discovery.
Indiana prisoner Leonard Dewitt, 51, filed a civil rights complaint alleging deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs against private medical contractor Corizon. He alleged that in 2007 while at the Wabash Correctional Facility, he submitted a Request for Healthcare to Corizon staff, stating something was wrong with his left eye and his vision was “like looking through a dirty piece of plastic.” He was prescribed glasses.
Upon release on parole in May 2008, Dewitt was diagnosed with a form of glaucoma and underwent surgery. He was reimprisoned in 2009 and again requested care for his eye. He received medication that did not work, as well as other treatment, but not the care that he specifically sought – removal of his left eye. He eventually had surgery to remove part of his eye in May 2012. He then filed suit against Corizon.
While the litigation was pending, Dewitt twice sought appointment of counsel; the district court denied his motions and subsequently granted summary judgment to Corizon. Dewitt appealed.
Because the Seventh Circuit found that “Dewitt should have had an attorney throughout the litigation,” it did not reach the merits of the summary judgment order. The appellate court noted that in his first motion for counsel, Dewitt stated he had a tenth-grade education, was indigent, and was unable to investigate and discover relevant facts. He also said he was “now totally blind in his left eye and the vision in [his] right eye is impaired.” Finally, he discussed the complexity of his case, his reliance on “jailhouse lawyers,” and his inability to comprehend legal proceedings, discovery rules and the defendants’ motions.
The Seventh Circuit held the district court had abused its discretion by not explaining its reasoning and failing to address all the relevant arguments when denying Dewitt’s first motion for counsel. The district court did not evaluate Dewitt’s personal characteristics or analyze his ability to litigate his claims. According to precedent, the “fact that an inmate receives assistance from a fellow prisoner should not factor into the decision whether to recruit counsel.” There was also no explanation as to why the claims were not of “sufficient complexity” to merit recruitment of counsel.
In denying Dewitt’s second motion for counsel, the district court used the same language as in its first order. In doing so, the court again abused its discretion by failing to address Dewitt’s new argument that the defendants were intentionally abusing the discovery rules by delaying interrogatory responses and saying they had no obligation to respond further. The court should have considered Dewitt’s ability to stop the discovery violations.
Having found an abuse of discretion, the Court of Appeals considered the issue of prejudice. The Court found “there is a reasonable likelihood counsel could have aided here and made a difference in the outcome.” The Seventh Circuit further held the district court improperly disregarded Dewitt’s motion for an extension of time to conduct discovery before ruling on the defendants’ summary judgment motion. The lower court’s order was vacated and remanded. See: Dewitt v. Corizon, 760 F.3d 654 (7th Cir. 2014).
Following remand, the district court appointed counsel to represent Dewitt, and the case settled in June 2015 under confidential terms.
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Related legal case
Dewitt v. Corizon
|Cite||760 F.3d 654 (7th Cir. 2014)|
|Level||Court of Appeals|
|Appeals Court Edition||F.3d|