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Summary Judgment Reversed for Delay in Treating Prisoner in Extreme Pain

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed summary judgment in favor of a guard and a nurse in a civil rights action alleging they were deliberately indifferent to a prisoner’s serious medical needs and unnecessarily prolonged his suffering.

James A. Lewis, housed at the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility, awoke at 5:15 a.m on February 8, 2014 and experienced a sharp pain shooting from the base of his neck to his tailbone when he attempted to get off his bunk. On account of the pain, he could neither lie back down nor stand up. The pain immobilized him for a half hour before he finally leaned forward far enough to press the emergency button in his cell.

The guard who answered the call informed Lt. Joseph Cichanowicz about Lewis’ condition. Cichanowicz told Lewis he needed a nurse, then left Lewis’ cell. After ten or fifteen minutes, Lewis again pushed the emergency button and requested medical assistance. Sometime thereafter, Cichanowicz arrived with nurse Angela McLean.

Lewis told McLean he was experiencing “terrible back pain” and “couldn’t move.” As Lewis could not be examined in his cell pursuant to policy, he was told to be ready after head count; he was also informed he would first have to be cuffed from behind through the slot in the door. Lewis repeated that he was unable to stand or move.

Needing to follow Cichanowicz’s orders after he and the nurse left, Lewis tried to go to the door but collapsed and then fell over on his side. He cried out in pain and covered himself with a blanket. Meanwhile, Cichanowicz reviewed the video feed in Lewis’ cell and told McLean that he had not moved from a seated position on his bunk from 5:15 to 6:40 a.m.

Sgt. Wayne Primmer watched the video of Lewis’ cell and contacted Lt. Joni Shannon-Sharpe to brief her about Lewis’ earlier encounter with Cichanowicz and nurse McLean, and to inform her that Lewis was now lying on the floor.

At 7:30 a.m, Shannon-Sharpe went to Lewis’ cell. He repeated that he could not move due to excruciating pain, and said Cichanowicz told him no one would help him unless he crawled to the cell door to be cuffed. Shannon-Sharpe conferred with McLean; a doctor was called, who ordered that Lewis be removed from the cell and taken to a hospital.

Once at the hospital, Lewis received morphine for his back pain and Ativan for his agitation, and was diagnosed with muscle spasms of the neck and upper back and myalgia (muscle pain). Hours later he was able to stand and walk.

He subsequently filed a federal civil rights action. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, and Lewis appealed. He was represented by counsel on appeal.

On July 21, 2017, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the summary judgment order as to all the defendants except Cichanowicz and McLean. “A delay in treatment may show deliberate indifference if it exacerbated the inmate’s injury or unnecessarily prolonged his pain,” the appellate court wrote, citing precedent, and “even brief, unexplained delays in treatment may constitute deliberate indifference.”

The Court of Appeals found it was not in dispute that Lewis had a serious medical need. It determined a reasonable jury could find Cichanowicz and McLean were deliberately indifferent to that need by delaying treatment for about one-and-a-half hours, causing Lewis unnecessary pain and suffering. The guard and nurse argued they were entitled to do nothing because Lewis had failed to comply with their orders. The Court rejected that argument.

It also cited the video evidence from Lewis’ cell, noting that several hours were missing from the video. “[T]here is no explanation in the record why the defendants did not preserve this video but did preserve the six minutes of favorable video showing Lewis being removed from his cell,” the Seventh Circuit stated.

On remand, the district court was instructed to determine if sanctions were appropriate due to the missing evidence; the court was also instructed to consider recruiting counsel to represent Lewis. Summary judgment in Cichanowicz and McLean’s favor was reversed, as the appellate court held they were not entitled to qualified immunity. The case remains pending. See: Lewis v. McLean, 864 F.3d 556 (7th Cir. 2017). 

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Related legal case

Lewis v. McLean