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Seventh Circuit: Medical Deliberate Indifference Case Remanded, Loses at Trial

by Christopher Zoukis

In August 2015, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of prison officials accused of being deliberately indifferent to a prisoner’s serious medical needs, and remanded the case for a trial on the merits. The defendants prevailed at trial, however, and costs were taxed against the plaintiff.

On December 22, 2009, Joseph Conley, while incarcerated at the Vienna Correctional Center in Illinois, was hit in the hand with a combination lock swung by another prisoner. Conley heard a “pop” and felt excruciating pain in his hand. Two days later, nurse Tracy Potts examined him and concluded that Conley had suffered a “possible/probable fracture.” After the examination, Nurse Potts called Dr. Kimberly Birch, the sole physician assigned to the facility. Conley was prescribed a “correctional cure-all” (ibuprofen and ice) and sent on his way. No X-rays were ordered.

Five days later, Dr. Birch examined Conley personally and ordered an X-ray. Due to the holiday season, transportation issues and Conley’s transfer to another institution, it was two weeks before his hand was X-rayed at the Shawnee Correctional Center. The X-ray services were provided by a private contractor, Wexford Health Sources. Years later, Conley still suffers from chronic pain and limited mobility in his hand.

Conley sued Dr. Birch and a number of Illinois Department of Corrections employees, alleging that they had collectively violated the Eighth Amendment by demonstrating deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. The district court granted summary judgment to Dr. Birch, finding no reasonable jury could conclude that she acted with deliberate indifference. Conley appealed.

The Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded the claim against Dr. Birch for trial. The appellate court determined that Conley had sufficiently alleged that his injury amounted to an “objectively serious medical condition,” and that Dr. Birch was “aware of the condition and knowingly disregarded it.” As such, summary judgment should not have been granted.

The Court of Appeals determined that Nurse Potts’ notes, which cited a “possible/probable fracture” indicated a serious medical condition. Further evidence of the seriousness of the injury was found in her decision to call Dr. Birch about the situation while she was at home, on Christmas Eve.

Because the injury was determined to be objectively serious, the Court then considered how Dr. Birch handled the situation: “The relevant inquiry, then, is whether the provision of only painkillers and ice to an inmate suffering from a suspected fracture constitutes deliberate indifference.”

The Seventh Circuit answered that question in the affirmative. Conley’s expert testified that the proper treatment would have been immobilization of the hand and immediate X-rays. When presented with a suspected fracture, providing ibuprofen and ice with an X-ray some weeks later constituted deliberate indifference to a serious medical need.

The appellate court cautioned that its analysis did not necessarily indicate Conley would prevail at trial, just that his allegations were enough to survive a motion for summary judgment. See: Conley v. Birch, 796 F.3d 742 (7th Cir. 2015).

Following remand, the case went to trial in early 2016, and the jury entered a verdict for the defendants. On March 14, 2016 the district court taxed $3,647.17 in the defendants’ litigation costs against Conley, demonstrating the danger of going to trial and losing. He was represented by attorney John M. Robinson with the firm of Jones Day.

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Related legal case

Conley v. Birch