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Recurring Injury Subsequent to Lawsuit Settlement No Bar to New Claim

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held a prisoner’s previous lawsuit settlements did not preclude a complaint for the same type of injury occurring at a later time. It also held the district court had improperly concluded a claim against a medical director was brought in the director’s official capacity, making it a suit against the state.

Illinois prisoner Delbert Heard has suffered for over 20 years from inguinal hernias, i.e., hernias of the groin. [See: PLN, March 2003, p.24]. He was diagnosed with one in 1995 upon beginning his prison sentence. A second hernia on his other side was diagnosed in 2000, but Wexford Health Sources, the medical contractor for the Illinois DOC, “stalled until May 2007 after both hernias had become incarcerated” – which is when the intestines protrude through a weak spot in the abdominal wall and become trapped, “prompting emergency surgery.”

Heard sued prison officials, Wexford and a Wexford physician in 2006 and 2009. A jury entered a verdict against the doctor, resulting in Wexford settling both lawsuits in September 2012 for $273,250. See: Heard v. Illinois DOC, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:06-cv-00644 and Heard v. Wexford Health Sources, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 3:09-cv-00449-JPG.

At some point after his 2007 surgery, Heard developed a “‘recurrent’ left hernia.” He was referred to a doctor in January 2013, who ordered surgery following a CT scan; the surgery was not performed until late July 2013, or four months after the CT scan. Heard filed suit for the delay, alleging deliberate indifference.

Six days after the lawsuit was filed Wexford moved for summary judgment, arguing that the 2012 settlement with Heard, as well as the doctrines of claim and issue preclusion, foreclosed his civil rights action. The district court “reasoned that Heard had released all claims known to him when he executed the settlement agreement, and that, as evidenced by the complaint, he knew in April 2011 that he needed a second surgery.”

Heard appealed, and Wexford argued “that the doctrine of issue preclusion bars Heard from litigating whether they were deliberately indifferent to his need for hernia surgery in 2013.” The Seventh Circuit quickly dispensed with that issue by finding that “even if the verdicts or the settlement would preclude Heard from relitigating whether Wexford and its employees were deliberately indifferent to Heard’s medical needs prior to 2007, that limitation would be irrelevant to Heard’s ... fresh allegations of stalling a different surgery, and even a different Wexford physician.”

The same rationale applied to the claim preclusion doctrine. “Heard’s allegation that the defendants once again displayed deliberate indifference to his recurrent hernia in no way arises from the operative facts of the previous lawsuits,” the Court of Appeals wrote.

Finally, the Court rejected Wexford’s argument that the 2012 settlement had released Wexford and its employees from liability for “all ‘known and unknown’ claims arising from Plaintiff’s inguinal hernia condition....” Under Illinois law, broad language in a contract “limit[s] the scope of the release to the claims arising from those specific references.” Thus the previous settlement could not have related to Heard’s recurrent hernia that developed after his 2007 surgery.

“Heard could not possibly have expected that, at some point in the future, the Wexford defendants would repeat the same conduct that led to a significant settlement of the 2006 and 2009 lawsuits, and thus the release cannot plausibly be read as completely barring Heard’s new lawsuit,” the Seventh Circuit explained.

The appellate court further held that Heard’s claim against Dr. Lewis Shicker, the medical director for Illinois’ prison system, had been improperly dismissed, as the complaint specifically stated Shicker was “culpable in his individual capacity.” The fact that he was the author of a DOC policy specifying hernia surgeries were “purely elective procedures” did not mean the claim against Shicker was in his official capacity.

Accordingly, the summary judgment order was vacated except as to claims against one doctor that were not at issue on appeal. Following remand the district court appointed counsel to represent Heard in April 2016, and the case remains pending. See: Heard v. Tilden, 809 F.3d 974 (7th Cir. 2016). 

Related legal cases

Heard v. Tilden

Heard v. Illinois DOC

Heard v. Wexford Health Sources


 

Prisoners Self Help Litigation Manual

 



 

Disciplinary Self-Help Litigation Manual

 



 

Federal Prison Handbook

 



 


 

Disciplinary Self-Help Litigation Manual