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Seventh Circuit: Warden’s Termination of Medical Diets was Deliberately Indifferent

The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that a prison warden who cancelled all prescribed medical diets without first consulting a doctor was deliberately indifferent to the serious medical needs of a prisoner who had been receiving a medical diet.

In 1998, Illinois lifer Donald McDonald was diagnosed with high cholesterol and prescribed a low-cholesterol diet. He received dietician-approved meals without interruption for more than ten years at the Stateville Correctional Center.

When Marcus Hardy was appointed warden at Stateville in 2009, however, he immediately fired the dietician and cancelled all medical diets without consulting the prescribing physicians. As a result, McDonald had to eat a regular diet that included foods the dietician had warned him to avoid – including cheese, eggs and foods with high amounts of mayonnaise. He sought reinstatement of his low-cholesterol diet, but medical personnel repeatedly told him they could not reinstate the prescription because food service staff could no longer provide such meals.

McDonald filed suit in federal court against Hardy and Assistant Warden Daryl Edwards, alleging they were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs when they cancelled and then refused to reinstate his medically-prescribed diet.

McDonald requested discovery during the litigation, including a “complete copy” of his medical file and the prison’s medical diet policies and procedures. When the defendants ignored him, the district court issued two orders compelling them to comply with discovery requests.

The defendants refused and instead moved for summary judgment. McDonald responded by submitting medical literature “explaining that the optimal cholesterol range for someone of middle age is 115 mg/dL to 200 mg/dL.” The defendants acknowledged that McDonald’s cholesterol level fluctuated between 300 mg/dL and 400 mg/dL after his medical diet was cancelled, yet they offered no evidence “that a cholesterol level of either 300 mg/dL or 400 mg/dL is safe.” Nevertheless, the district court granted their summary judgment motion.

The Seventh Circuit reversed on May 9, 2016, first noting the “troubling” barriers that McDonald faced “in developing evidence to flesh out this claim” after the defendants refused to comply with two court orders to produce his requested discovery.

“Litigants ... cannot ignore legitimate discovery requests based on a unilateral belief that flouting the rules of procedure will not harm their opponents,” the Court of Appeals declared. “Continued intransigence after the district court has compelled compliance is inexcusable.” The Court then found that “what little evidence Warden Hardy and Assistant Warden Edwards did submit in opposing Mr. McDonald’s claim ... actually supports, rather than defeats, that claim, and thus we must overturn the grant of summary judgment.”

“The evidence is undisputed that when Warden Hardy arrived ... in late 2009 he cancelled (and Assistant Warden Edwards refused to reinstate) all prescription diets, including Mr. McDonald’s,” the appellate court wrote. “These defendants, however, are not physicians, and there is no evidence in the record that they ever consulted a medical professional about the advisability of canceling the allowance for low-cholesterol diets at the prison. Interference with prescribed treatment is a well-recognized example of how nonmedical prison personnel can display deliberate indifference to inmates’ medical conditions.”

The district court’s summary judgment order was reversed and the case remains pending on remand. See: McDonald v. Hardy, 821 F.3d 882 (7th Cir. 2016), cert. denied

Related legal case

McDonald v. Hardy