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Fifth Circuit Holds Court May Compel Attorney to Represent Indigent Prisoner

In a November 13, 2015 ruling, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held a district court may compel a lawyer to represent an indigent prisoner challenging prison conditions.

Mario Naranjo was incarcerated at the Reeves County Detention Center in Texas when he filed a lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, challenging conditions of confinement at the prison. The facility is owned by Reeves County but operated by GEO Group, a Florida-based private prison company. Naranjo’s suit complained of overcrowding and deficient fire safety and sanitation; the facility was the site of major riots in December 2008 and January 2009. [See: PLN, Feb. 2010, p.22].

With no legal training, Naranjo was hampered in prosecuting the suit. For example, he filed for discovery which the GEO Group defendants refused to give him, citing security concerns. Instead they sent the discovery to the district court, where it was placed under seal.

Naranjo filed a motion for appointment of counsel, which the court found “would expedite the lawsuit, promote judicial economy, and was ultimately justified under the circumstances.” However, the motion was denied with the court explaining that it could not find a qualified attorney in the area willing to take the case for free. Naranjo filed an interlocutory appeal of the denial of his motion to appoint counsel.

While that appeal was pending, the district court held a hearing on the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, during which one witness discussed some of the sealed discovery evidence. Naranjo only minimally participated in the hearing because, as he repeatedly told the court, he did not understand the proceedings and had no legal training. The court granted the motion and dismissed the case. Naranjo appealed.

The Fifth Circuit consolidated the interlocutory and summary judgment appeals, and noted in its decision that federal district courts have the inherent power to compel attorneys to accept uncompensated appointment. Considering that the district court “found that Naranjo had demonstrated the exceptional circumstances to warrant the appointment of counsel,” and was correct in holding that the sealed discovery weighed in favor of appointing counsel, it had abused its discretion by not entertaining the option of forcing an attorney to take the case.

“Because Naranjo’s attempts to avoid summary judgment were hindered by absence of counsel,” the Court of Appeals vacated the summary judgment order without prejudice. The Court did not order appointment of counsel itself because Naranjo had been released from prison while the appeal was pending and his changed circumstances, such as better access to a law library and possible access to the sealed discovery, might no longer justify such an appointment. See: Naranjo v. Thompson, 809 F.3d 793 (5th Cir. 2015).

Following remand, the district court appointed attorney Mary W. Baker to represent Naranjo. The case remains pending with a jury trial scheduled for April 18, 2017. 


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Related legal case

Naranjo v. Thompson