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Seventh Circuit Reinstates Illinois DOC Prisoner’s Suit Against Wexford Psychiatrist

On February 9, 2021, the Seventh Circuit court of appeals held that a district court erred when it departed significantly from Pruitt v. Mote, 503 F.3d 647 (7th Cir. 2007) in its consideration of a mentally ill Illinois prisoner’s motion to recruit counsel. The court held that assistance of counsel likely would have changed the outcome of the summary judgment dismissal of a claim against a Wexford Health Services psychiatrist and reversed the dismissal.

Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) prisoner Shawn Eagan suffers from serious mental illnesses. He was in a mental health crisis and repeatedly banging his head against his cell wall and window at the Pontiac Correctional Center when guards called Dr. Michael Dempsey, a psychiatrist employed by Wexford to provide psychiatric services and medication there.

This was the second time Dempsey had been called that day because of Eagan’s headbanging. He had warned Eagan that continued headbanging would result in an involuntary injection so he ordered enforced injections of 10 mg of Haldol and 50 mg of Benadryl. Over the ensuing two days, Eagan allegedly suffered from painful involuntary muscle contractions and a locked open jaw due to the injection. Dr. Dempsey allegedly told Eagan he would not prescribe medication for the pain because Eagan was engaging in self-harm by headbanging.

Another prisoner in an adjoining cell said he also heard this exchange.

Eagan eventually recovered and filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Dempsey and several guards. He filed multiple motions for appointment of counsel, supporting them with documents showing he had attempted to recruit pro bono counsel on his own and had a serious mental illness.

The court justified denying the motions by stating that his pleadings had been sufficient thus far, the issues were not complex, and he had not proven he was mentally ill. In later motions, Eagan noted that he had been using a “jailhouse lawyer,” but no longer had access to him or his prisoner witnesses because he had been transferred to another prison. Those motions were denied “for the reasons previously given by the court.” Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment which the court granted. Eagan appealed.

The Seventh Circuit held that the district court had departed significantly from the procedure it set out in Pruitt for considering the merits of an indigent pro se litigant’s motion to recruit counsel, Pruitt requires the litigant to show an attempt to obtain counsel. Eagan did so.

Pruitt also requires a consideration of the factual and legal complexity of the case, but warns that cases become increasingly complex as they progress. The district court should also have considered Eagan’s literacy, education, communication skills, intellectual capacity and psychological history, as well as his ability to obtain help from other prisoners. It should have considered Eagan’s transfer to another prison which cut off his access to witnesses and documents necessary to make his case. The district court failed to conduct an individualized assessment of Eagan’s abilities and access to counsel. This likely would have changed the outcome with respect to Dr. Dempsey, but not the guards. The dismissal of the claims against the guards was affirmed. It reversed and remanded with respect to Dempsey. See: Eagan v. Dempsey, 987 F.3d 667 (7th Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal case

Eagan v. Dempsey