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Seventh Circuit: Jailhouse Lawyer’s Help No Reason to Deny Appointment of Counsel

The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a lower court ruling that denied appointment of counsel to a prisoner because he received legal help from another prisoner.

Ladell Henderson had a fifth grade education and had been diagnosed with a low IQ when he filed suit against prison officials for deficient medical care. Incarcerated at Illinois’ Stateville Correctional Center since 1995, he was found to have high blood pressure in 1999.

The following year he was diagnosed with diabetes. In 2009, after experiencing diabetic hypoglycemia and tremulous convulsions, Henderson was informed by a physician that he had a “bad kidney problem” and would die without dialysis. He subsequently learned that he had not been provided certain treatments over the years that could have prevented his kidney failure.

In October 2010, with the help of another prisoner, Henderson filed a federal lawsuit alleging deliberate indifference to his medical needs and requesting appointment of counsel because he had little education and a low IQ.

The district court acknowledged “that his filings have been prepared by other inmates,” but still denied Henderson’s request for appointment of counsel.

In July 2011, Henderson filed an amended complaint, a settlement proposal, a motion for discovery and a motion for default judgment against several defendants who had filed a motion to dismiss. The court denied the request for default judgment and set a March 5 deadline for discovery.

Henderson refused to answer deposition questions without representation by an attorney in February 2012. The district court denied his second motion for appointment of counsel, stating “... he is competent to represent himself in all aspects including discovery.”

With help from another prisoner, Henderson filed additional interrogatories and moved to compel production of his medical records. The court ordered the defendants to produce the medical records but denied additional interrogatories. The defendants resisted giving Henderson the records, noting his “lack of knowledge” to understand them. They then filed a motion for summary judgment. In the meantime, guards had confiscated Henderson’s legal work from the cell of the prisoner who was assisting him.

Henderson filed a third motion for appointment of counsel, citing his inability to read and write. This time the district court granted his motion and appointed counsel long after the deadline for discovery had closed, but subsequently granted summary judgment to the defendants. Henderson appealed.

The Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded, stating “the district court erred in assessing Henderson’s competence to litigate his claims ... [just because] an inmate receives assistance from a fellow prisoner should not factor into the decision whether to recruit counsel.” The Court of Appeals held it was “problematic” that the district court had “relied on the abilities of [Henderson’s] jailhouse lawyer who had been preparing his filings for him,” instead of “his documented low IQ, functional illiteracy, poor education, inexperience with civil litigation, and incarceration.”

“In the sea of indigent litigants without counsel, Henderson should have stood out as someone who needed counsel the most,” the appellate court concluded. See: Henderson v. Ghosh, 755 F.3d 559 (7th Cir. 2014).

The case remains pending on remand, with the defendants filing and then withdrawing a motion for summary judgment in early 2015. On August 3, 2015 the district court granted in part and denied in part Henderson’s motion to compel. A second motion for summary judgment was filed by the defendants in November 2015, which was denied by the court in April 2016. A jury trial was set for September 19, 2016, but the case settled before trial.

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Related legal case

Henderson v. Ghosh