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Seventh Circuit Affirms Lower Court’s Summary Judgment Order in Self-Mutilation Case

by Chad Marks

Lloyd Johnson brought a civil suit against the Milwaukee County Medical Health Clinic (MHC), claiming that his rights were violated when he was not provided constitutionally adequate medical care leading to self-mutilation.

On February 28, 2012, Johnson voluntarily admitted himself to MHC, complaining that he was depressed, had delusional thoughts, auditory hallucinations and suicidal thoughts.

Johnson’s records showed that he had a history of attempting suicide and self-harm. He relayed to the intake nurse that his ears had keloids because he had pulled on his penis.

Hospital staff diagnosed him with a psychotic disorder, yet released him after 22 hours.

Days later, on March 3, 2012, Johnson mutilated himself with a pair of scissors. He severed his testicles, cut off his earlobes, and removed a portion of skin from his penis. As a result, he was back at MHC under emergency detention and housed in a high-risk patient area.

He also was placed on one-on-one observation status, requiring that he never be left alone. He was eventually taken off on-on-one observation. Nursing staff conducted rounds every 15 minutes to check on the whereabouts and well-being of every patient. There were allegations by Johnson that the nurses did not always do the rounds.

On March 18, Johnson approached the nursing station, handing the staff a pair of bandage scissors and towels soaked in blood. He had completely severed his penis. He claimed that the scissors were left in his bathroom by nurses that previously changed his wound dressings.

Johnson, in his lawsuit, claimed that removing him from one-on-one observation amounted to constitutionally inadequate medical care, because doing so allowed him to harm himself. The district court rejected this position, granting the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

Johnson appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s order granting summary judgment for the defendants. In doing so, the Court acknowledged that “When a state actor .... deprives a person of his ability to care for himself by incarcerating him, detaining him, or involuntarily committing him, it assumes an obligation to provide some minimum-level of well-being and safety.” Collignon v. Milwaukee Cty, 163 F.3d 982 (7th Cir. 1998).

In the medical context, a plaintiff must show that his medical need was objectively serious. Once he shows that, the plaintiff must prove that the treatment decision made was a substantial departure from the accepted professional standard. Collignon makes this clear.

The Seventh Circuit found that Johnson could not show that removing him from the one-on-one observation was not a professional treatment judgment. As to the scissors, the Court also found that Johnson did not submit sufficient evidence to establish individual liability. Estate of Perry v. Wenzel, 872 F.3d 439 (7th Cir. 2017). Absent a showing of individual liability, Johnson came up short, said the court.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s order for summary judgment. See: Johnson v. Rimmer, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 26460 (7th Cir. 2019)

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Related legal case

Johnson v. Rimmer