Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Seventh Circuit: Illinois Prisoner Entitled to Retrial After Appointment of Counsel Denied

by Derek Gilna

On August 20, 2018, the Seventh Circuit granted a new trial to a prisoner whose multiple motions for appointment of counsel were denied in a federal lawsuit against guards employed by the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Fredrick Walker, incarcerated at the maximum-security Pontiac Correctional Center, claimed that on August 21, 2013, Timothy Price, a guard who was charged with delivering his meal, dropped his tray. After Walker objected to the lack of a replacement meal, he alleged that he was forcibly extracted from his cell, transferred to a more restrictive unit and beaten by other guards.

Walker filed a federal civil rights suit, alleging that “Officers Price, French, and Stahl violated his Eighth Amendment rights by using excessive force, failing to intervene to stop the use of excessive force, and exhibiting deliberate indifference” to his need for medical care. Walker informed the district court that he had mental health problems, little knowledge of the law or access to legal resources, and was being assisted by a “jailhouse lawyer who helped him with research and drafting” his pleadings.

His six requests for appointment of counsel over the course of the litigation were denied; the case eventually went to trial via videoconference, and the jury ruled in favor of the defendants.

“Walker,” the Seventh Circuit said, “who is represented by recruited counsel on appeal, claims the district court made three errors. First, he argues that the district court’s denial of his motions to recruit counsel was an abuse of discretion that prejudiced him. Second, Walker argues the district court abused its discretion in allowing his trial to proceed by videoconference. Finally, Walker argues that the cumulative effect of the court’s errors requires that we grant him a new trial.”

Plaintiffs in federal civil cases do not have a constitutional or statutory right to appointed counsel, the Court of Appeals noted, citing Pruitt v. Mote, 503 F.3d 647 (7th Cir. 2007) (en banc). “An indigent litigant, however, may ask the court to recruit a volunteer attorney to provide pro bono representation. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(1). Two questions guide a court’s discretionary decision whether to recruit counsel: ‘(1) has the indigent plaintiff made a reasonable attempt to obtain counsel or been effectively precluded from doing so,’ and (2) ‘given the difficulty of the case, does the plaintiff appear competent to litigate it himself?’”

In this case, the Seventh Circuit explained, “We have emphasized that the assistance of counsel becomes increasingly important as litigation enters its later stages,” and “District courts abuse their discretion where they fail to consider the complexities of advanced-stage litigation activities and whether a litigant is capable of handling them.”

The appellate court concluded that “Trying a case requires additional skills, and Walker had managed the pretrial phase with the help of a jailhouse lawyer who had since been transferred to another prison. Because the landscape had changed at this late stage of the litigation, the court should have granted Walker’s motion to recruit counsel.”

Accordingly, the judgment was vacated and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Walker v. Price, 900 F.3d 933 (7th Cir. 2018). 


Additional source:


As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Walker v. Price