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Seventh Circuit: Indiana District Court Erred in Denying Counsel to Prisoner

That ruling came in an appeal brought by Indiana prisoner Leonard Thomas, who sued numerous prison officials at the Westville Correctional Facility. His complaint alleged his requests for mental health care were denied or ignored and that officials failed to protect him from self-harm.

Over a 20-month period, “Thomas’s case traveled a lengthy journey, which included amendments to his complaint and denials of his requests for counsel,” the Seventh Circuit wrote. His failure to respond to a district court order resulted in dismissal of the case.

The Seventh Circuit first considered the question of appointment of counsel because it resolved the other issues on appeal. While civil litigants do not have a statutory right to court-appointed counsel, the district may request an attorney represent a party.

In exercising that discretion, the district court must inquire if (1) “the indigent plaintiff made a reasonable attempt to obtain counsel … and if so; (2) given the difficulty of the case, does the plaintiff appear competent to litigate himself.” See: Pruitt v. Note, 503 F.3d 647 (7th Cir. 2007).

In denying Thomas’s two 2015 requests for counsel, the district court satisfactorily evaluated the efforts Thomas had made toward seeking counsel, but in denying his 2016 request, its inquiry was insufficient.

As to whether Thomas had the ability to litigate the case, the district court again failed to make necessary findings in denying the 2016 request. While the court cited his mental illness and the types of motions and filings he had made to determine in denying the 2015 requests, those orders failed to consider “Thomas’s literacy, communication skills, and litigation experience.” His lack of a high school education should have been considered, but it was not. The medical evidence made the case complicated, and prejudice was apparent in that with counsel’s assistance Thomas would have responded to the district court’s order to show cause.

Related legal case

Thomas v. Wardell