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Dying Prisoner’s Complaint Alleged Claim for Failure to Treat Hepatitis C

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed the dismissal of a prisoner’s civil rights action that accused staff at Autry State Prison of denying him treatment for hepatitis C.

Georgia state prisoner Blair Mitchell, who was serving a life sentence, filed a pro se complaint on February 22, 2016 alleging prison officials were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs. He said he had informed them of his hepatitis C diagnosis, but they failed to provide him “medication and/or treatment.”

Mitchell stated that due to “the lack of treatment[,] cirrhosis has begun.” He further claimed that medical staff refused to provide the “breakthrough” drug Harvoni – one of several new hepatitis C drugs that have shown to cure the disease in “96-99% of patients ... who had no prior treatment.” [See: PLN, April 2018, p.28; Dec. 2017, p.24; April 2014, p.20].

Because Mitchell sought in forma pauperis status, the district court screened the complaint. It dismissed his lawsuit upon a finding that he had three previous actions dismissed because they were frivolous, malicious or failed to state a claim, and that the imminent-danger exception did not apply because he “merely complains he is not being provided different (or the newest available) treatment for his medical conditions.” In the alternative, the court found the complaint should be dismissed as a sanction for Mitchell knowingly providing false information with his in forma pauperis application by saying he never had a lawsuit dismissed as a strike under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).

When Mitchell filed his appeal, he informed the appellate court he was “in fact dying from Hep C and the lack of Hep C treatment.” On July 7, 2017, the Eleventh Circuit granted a motion to expedite the appeal after Mitchell’s counsel informed the court that Mitchell had advanced from cirrhosis of the liver to liver cancer. Days after granting that motion, Mitchell died. His estate continued the appeal.

In an October 17, 2017 ruling, the Court of Appeals found the record supported a finding that Mitchell had three strikes which barred him from in forma pauperis status pursuant to the PLRA. However, the appellate court held that he had pleaded facts showing he was in imminent danger. Construed liberally, the complaint plainly alleged “1) ‘the lack of treatment’ for hepatitis C, and 2) that this lack of treatment caused cirrhosis to begin.” Mitchell’s “reference to not receiving a certain hepatitis C treatment includes no indication of not being given a different one.” Thus, he alleged a lack of medical treatment that placed him in imminent danger.

As to the sanction of dismissal, the Eleventh Circuit found the district court “dismissed Mr. Mitchell’s suit without affording him notice or an opportunity to respond, much less a formal order to show cause.” Since the district court had failed to follow the “procedural requirements necessary for imposing sanctions” in violation of Fed.R.Civ.P. 11, its dismissal of the case was an abuse of discretion.

Regarding Mitchell’s false statement made to the district court that he had no prior strikes under the PLRA, the Court of Appeals noted that Mitchell “does not dispute that his representation was false. Neither does he contest the power of district courts to sanction a party under Rule 11, including with dismissal, for knowingly making false statements to the court. Instead, he argues the District Court abused its discretion because it did not give him notice and an opportunity to be heard before imposing the sanction. We agree.”

The appellate court concluded by finding that Mitchell had alleged facts indicating prison officials were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs. Accordingly, the district court’s order was reversed and remanded, and the case remains pending. See: Mitchell v. Nobles, 873 F.3d 869 (11th Cir. 2017).


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Related legal case

Mitchell v. Nobles