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Seventh Circuit: Prison Doctor Not Entitled to Summary Judgment on Deliberate Indifference Claim

by Lonnie Burton

On September 8, 2016, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed a district court’s order granting summary judgment to a federal prison doctor who refused to adequately treat a prisoner with severe burns on his legs. However, summary judgment in favor of a health services administrator was proper, the appellate court ruled.

Federal prisoner Jessie Rivera suffered second-degree burns on his left leg, foot and ankle after he slipped and fell into a pool of boiling water while employed as a kitchen worker at the Federal Correctional Institution in Oxford, Wisconsin. His wounds were initially dressed and treated by a prison nurse, who prescribed a narcotic pain medication. Several months later, after repeatedly complaining of continued pain and numbness in his left leg, Rivera was scheduled to see the prison’s doctor, Ravi Gupta.

According to Rivera’s complaint, Dr. Gupta refused to examine him, look at his medical records or authorize any treatment whatsoever. Instead, he told Rivera that he would not have burned himself if he hadn’t been in prison, and that “only God” could help him, according to court pleadings. Dr. Gupta also threatened to issue Rivera a disciplinary report if he continued to complain about his leg.

Rivera sued the doctor and a prison health services administrator, Cesar Lopez, for deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Rivera contended that Dr. Gupta’s refusal to treat his burns put him at risk of nerve damage that could worsen without treatment, leading to the numbness, pain and difficulty walking that Rivera was in fact experiencing. In support of his argument Rivera submitted documents from a medical website, which Dr. Gupta did not contest.

The district court, however, granted summary judgment to the defendants, holding that Rivera had “produced no expert evidence that Gupta (or Lopez) had been deliberately indifferent to Rivera’s numbness and pain.” In doing so, the court refused to consider Rivera’s website documents and denied his request for appointment of counsel to assist him in responding to the summary judgment motion.

The Seventh Circuit reversed with respect to the grant of summary judgment to Dr. Gupta. The Court of Appeals first noted that the district court erred in 1) refusing to consider Rivera’s website evidence, and 2) refusing to appoint counsel to assist Rivera in answering the summary judgment motion when the court had acknowledged that doing so would have helped him secure expert testimony.

“A reasonable jury might well infer that personal hostility, divorced from medical judgment, had motivated Gupta’s refusal to provide Rivera with any further treatment,” the appellate court wrote. The Seventh Circuit also dismissed Dr. Gupta’s contention that Rivera was faking or exaggerating his complaints because he went three years after his meeting with Gupta without seeing medical staff for any pain or numbness in his left leg.

“Rivera may have given up on the medical staff at the prison” until he was transferred to another facility “where he no longer had to worry about Gupta” filing a disciplinary report against him, the Court of Appeals noted.

The district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Lopez was affirmed, as Lopez was not a medical professional and had no say in Rivera’s course of treatment. The case was remanded with instructions for the district court to recruit counsel for Rivera, and remains pending. Rivera represented himself pro se on appeal. See: Rivera v. Gupta, 836 F.3d 839 (7th Cir. 2016). 

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Related legal case

Rivera v. Gupta