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No Error When Judge Ignored Iowa Prisoner’s Request for Substitute Appointed Counsel

by Matt Clarke 

On May 3, 2019, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a district court did not err when it failed to consider a prisoner’s request for substitute appointed counsel after the attorney initially appointed by the court said the prisoner’s lawsuit was without merit. The Court of Appeals also found no evidence that prison officials had acted with deliberate indifference to the prisoner’s serious medical needs. 

Iowa state prisoner Husein Cejvanovic suffered a serious hip injury when he was assaulted by another prisoner at the Iowa State Penitentiary (ISP). That same day he was given pain medication and placed on bed rest pending the results of an X-ray, which eventually revealed a fractured hip. The next day he was transferred to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC), where he was evaluated and hip surgery was performed. Several days later Cejvanovic returned to ISP, but he went back to UIHC for follow-up visits in the following months. 

The UIHC report from his third follow-up visit noted that he felt unsteady walking and might benefit from the use of a cane. ISP issued him a special pair of New Balance shoes and boots, but refused to give him a cane out of concern that it might be used as a weapon. Thereafter, his records showed he was increasingly ambulatory and requested some work restrictions be lifted so he could return to his prison job assignment.

Cejvanovic, who has very limited English language skills, was assisted by other prisoners in filing a pro se federal lawsuit alleging deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. Essentially, he complained of being in continuing pain and denied a cane or walker by prison staff.

The district court appointed a translator and counsel, who investigated the claims. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. Appointed counsel submitted a report that essentially said Cejvanovic’s claims were meritless and amounted to a disagreement over the methods of treatment and failure to completely restore Cejvanovic to his painless and easily ambulatory pre-assault condition.

Cejvanovic sent the judge a two-page letter written in Bosnian, seeking replacement of his appointed counsel. His attorney conferred with the translator and was told the gist of the letter; he then informed the judge he had nothing to add to or change about his previous filing. The district court, which did not receive a translated version of the letter, granted summary judgment to the defendants and dismissed the case. Cejvanovic appealed. 

The Eighth Circuit noted that Cejvanovic “submitted no evidence or affidavit supporting allegations in his unverified Complaint that ‘[t]he doctor at UIHC says the hip joint they used was defective and needs to be replaced,’ and that ‘ISP has taken away the walker I had been using.’” His other allegations were mere disagreements over medical treatment, which did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation.

Since Cejvanovic’s request to substitute court-appointed counsel came in the form of a letter to the judge written in Bosnian, which he could have had translated by the translator but failed to do so, there was no request for the district court to consider and thus no error. Accordingly, the judgment of the district court was affirmed. See: Cejvanovic v. Ludwick, 923 F.3d 503 (8th Cir. 2019). 

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Related legal case

Cejvanovic v. Ludwick