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Seventh Circuit: District Court Abused Discretion in Not Seeking Counsel for Pro Se Prisoner

by Dale Chappell

In a case where a prisoner filed a civil rights claim against prison doctors but failed to follow proper legal procedures, the district court abused its discretion when it refused to seek counsel to represent the prisoner, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held when reversing summary judgment in favor of the doctors.

Thomas James contracted an infection in his foot while in an Indiana prison in 2007. Due to his lame foot, he fell and broke his jaw. The prison referred him to two specialists, one for his foot and the other for his jaw. The specialist who examined his jaw said that due to the delay in treatment for his injury, nothing could be done.

After James was transferred to a facility in Arizona, he filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming the Indiana prison doctors were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs. He asked the district court to appoint counsel to assist him with his “complex” medical claims, which would require “substantial investigation and discovery”; further, being held at a prison in Arizona would “greatly limit” his ability to properly litigate the case in Indiana. The court denied his request as premature.

After the district court found James’ claims survived initial screening under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), he again asked the court to seek counsel. His request was denied, with the court stating he “demonstrated familiarity with his claims and the ability to present them,” that his claims were “not complex” and that counsel’s assistance would not make any difference. As the case progressed, James twice more asked for counsel. The court said he was “competent to litigate on his own” given his “comprehensive filings,” knowledge of “the court’s processes” and his “understanding of the applicable legal standard.”

The district court then granted summary judgment to the prison doctors. In doing so, it held that James had not properly responded to summary judgment motions because he did not present admissible evidence to “create a genuine issue of material fact,” despite the court’s admonishments that he had improperly pursued discovery to obtain that evidence earlier. James appealed.

Pro se civil litigants do not have a right to a court-appointed lawyer; however, a court “may request an attorney to represent any person unable to afford counsel.” See: 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(1). While the decision to seek counsel is at the court’s discretion, that “does not mean that no legal standard governs that discretion,” the Seventh Circuit wrote in its May 2, 2018 decision. It is not the court’s “inclination” to do something, but its “judgment” which must be “guided by sound legal principles,” the appellate court noted.

A court’s decision to seek or not seek counsel for a pro se prisoner is guided by 1) whether the prisoner made a reasonable attempt to find counsel or was precluded from doing so, and 2) whether the prisoner is competent to litigate the case himself. The question is not if an attorney would do a better job, but whether the case factually and legally exceeds the prisoner’s capacity as a layperson to “coherently present it.”

Further, a case increases in complexity and a prisoner’s competency decreases as the litigation progresses, the Court of Appeals recognized. “Taking depositions, conducting witness examinations, applying the rules of evidence, and making opening statements are beyond the ability of most pro se litigants,” the Court said. Further, a prisoner’s “literacy, communication skills, education level, and litigation experience” must be considered.

The Seventh Circuit found that James’ case met the standards for recruitment of counsel. First, his claims involved deliberate indifference, which requires an analysis of the “state of mind” of the doctors regarding his medical treatment. Second, the lawsuit became “increasingly complex” as it progressed. Third, James’ incarceration in Arizona put him over 1,000 miles from the location of his witnesses and the incident. Finally, the difficult medical terminology and multiple medical facilities involved made the case much harder.

“The district court was aware of each of these complications,” the Court of Appeals said, yet it still denied James’ requests for counsel, making only “cursory reference” to his ability to handle the case without considering his circumstances. The district court’s failure to give full consideration to those factors constituted an abuse of discretion, the appellate court held, and James was prejudiced because he was unable to pursue discovery and properly respond to the summary judgment motions, resulting in the dismissal of his suit.

Accordingly, the Seventh Circuit reversed the denial of James’ motions for counsel, vacated the grant of summary judgment and remanded for further proceedings. See: James v. Eli, 889 F.3d 320 (7th Cir. 2018).

The district court entered an order to recruit counsel for James on July 9, 2018, and the case remains pending. 


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Related legal case

James v. Eli