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Seventh Circuit Reinstates Illinois Jail Prisoner’s Failure-to-Protect Suit

In a September 16, 2015 ruling, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that a district court had improperly dismissed an Illinois jail prisoner’s failure-to-protect lawsuit based on his refusal to sign a medical release form.

Mario Reyes was a pretrial detainee at the Cook County Jail in Chicago when he was attacked and stabbed by other prisoners, resulting in serious, permanent injuries. He filed a pro se federal civil rights suit against Sheriff Thomas Dart and two jail employees, alleging that he cried out for help while being assaulted but a nearby guard ignored his pleas. He claimed the defendants were liable for failing to create or enforce policies necessary to protect prisoners.

After answering the complaint, the defendants’ attorney sent Reyes five letters over the course of six months demanding that he sign a general medical release for his records held by Cermark Health Services, Cermark Hospital and John H. Stoger, Jr. Hospital. The release would have let the defendants obtain any of his medical records from those institutions since the time he was born, and contained no restrictions as to with whom they could share the records. It also contained demands for specific records, such as Reyes’ HIV status, which were unrelated to his injuries.

Reyes responded to the third request to sign the release, pointing out that he had been treated at a different hospital for the wounds he suffered in the attack at the jail. The defendants’ only response was to include that hospital in their fourth request.

Defense counsel eventually filed a motion to dismiss for failure to prosecute. “Without waiting for a reply from the plaintiff and without any explanation for its actions, the court issued a minute order dismissing the suit with prejudice and denying the plaintiff’s motion for recruitment of counsel as moot in light of the dismissal,” the Seventh Circuit wrote. Reyes’ motion to appoint counsel had been pending for two months without action by the district court, which denied his subsequent motion for reconsideration of the dismissal order.

Calling the dismissal a “miscarriage of justice,” the Court of Appeals noted that failure to prosecute only occurs when a plaintiff does not attempt to advance the case or refuses to comply with the rules or a court order. Reyes did none of that. His refusal to sign an overbroad medical records release was not a failure to prosecute, but rather a discovery dispute which defense counsel should have addressed in a motion to compel. He had responded to the requests and asked for a more limited release, which was part of prosecuting the case. Therefore, the district court’s order of dismissal was vacated and the case remanded with instructions to first rule on the motion for appointment of counsel, then remind defense counsel of the discovery rule applicable to the demand for medical records. See: Reyes v. Dart, 801 F.3d 879 (7th Cir. 2015).

Following remand the district court appointed counsel to represent Reyes, based on “the serious nature of Plaintiff’s claims, the fact that Plaintiff requires assistance from others to complete filings in this case because of mental illnesses, and Plaintiff’s representations that he has been unable to secure counsel on his own.”

The case remains pending, with the parties engaging in settlement discussions in January 2017. 

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Related legal case

Reyes v. Dart