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Pro Se Prisoner Demonstrated Need for Recruitment of Counsel

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that a district court abused its discretion when it denied a Wisconsin prisoner’s repeated motions to recruit counsel.

Before the appellate court was a case involving prisoner Randy McCaa, whose 2016 civil rights complaint alleged that prison officials at the Green Bay Correctional Institution were deliberately indifferent to his risk of attempting suicide, causing him to suffer serious physical injuries on four different occasions.

McCaa filed four motions to recruit counsel. All repeated the initial motion’s claim that the issues in the case were complex, with several different claims involving different sets of defendants, and that the case would come down to a “credibility contest.” He also indicated that he had a serious mental illness, a fifth-grade reading level, little legal knowledge and, since he was in segregation, extremely limited access to the law library and witnesses.

The initial motion to recruit counsel was filed with the complaint; the second was filed a month later, and stated McCaa had been transferred to another prison and did not know where his witness was located. The district court denied the motions, finding McCaa had demonstrated an ability to communicate his arguments and submit court papers.

Two months later, as discovery was proceeding, McCaa filed a third motion. It noted that the complexity of the case required the defendants to have a second attorney general appointed. McCaa also said he would have difficulty getting opposing counsel to produce documents, he relied on other prisoners for litigation assistance and was having a hard time finding help. His final motion for counsel was filed during the summary judgment stage; judgment was entered for the defendants, and he appealed.

The Seventh Circuit granted McCaa’s motion to recruit counsel on appeal, and a “fine law firm” responded to that call. The Court of Appeals said that in determining whether to recruit counsel it has held district courts should analyze “(1) whether the plaintiff has made a reasonable attempt to obtain counsel, and (2) whether the plaintiff appears competent to litigate the case himself.”

The appellate court’s analysis focused on the second prong, as McCaa had made reasonable efforts to obtain counsel. It found the district court abused its discretion by denying McCaa’s third motion, as it failed to “specifically address whether McCaa was able to identify, collect, and present the right type of evidence for his deliberate indifference claims.” The lower court also failed to address whether McCaa’s transfer to another facility impacted his ability to litigate and engage in effective discovery.

“Courts should consider any relevant evidence raised ‘in support of the request for counsel, as well as the pleadings, communications from, and any contact with the plaintiff,’” the Court of Appeals wrote.

Finally, the district court should have specifically examined McCaa’s “personal ability to litigate the case, versus the ability of the jailhouse lawyer” who was assisting him. McCaa’s personal performance in the case indicated he was prejudiced by the denial of his motions to recruit counsel.

The summary judgment order was vacated, and the denial of the motions to recruit counsel was reversed. See: McCaa v. Hamilton, 893 F.3d 1027 (7th Cir. 2018).

Following remand, McCaa again moved for recruitment of counsel on August 8, 2018 and the defendants filed a brief in opposition. His motion remains pending. 


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Related legal case

McCaa v. Hamilton