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Seventh Circuit Says Racial Disparity Argument ‘Too Weak to Require Discussion’ in COVID-Related Motion for Compassionate Release

The court’s February 23, 2021, opinion was issued in an appeal by federal prisoner Lynard Joiner. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Joiner, 31, moved for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 382(c)(1)(A). He offered three “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for release: self-reported hypertension, a body mass index of 28.9 (the “overweight” category), and his skin color (“brown”), which is “seen as ‘black.’”

As to his third point, Joiner argued Black Americans have disproportionately suffered from COVID-19, not because of “weak biology,” but because “society has put them in worse positions.” He cited a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) article to argue Black Americans face a higher risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19. He cited two other articles to contend that although skin color should not affect health outcomes from infectious diseases, “our society” delivers subpar health care to “people with black skin,” even when controlling for class, comorbidities, and access to health insurance.

The district court found that while there has been 13 cases of COVID-19 at Joiner’s prison, USP Marion, it concluded Joiner failed to show he had an elevated risk for severe complications from the virus because he was relatively young, had no documented hypertension, and per CDC guidelines his body mass index was not an increased risk factor. Joiner appealed the denial of his motion.

On appeal, Joiner argued the district court committed procedural error by its silence on his skin color issue. The Seventh Circuit said the outcome of that issue was controlled by its ruling in United States v. Cunningham, 429 F.3d 673 (7th Cir. 2016).

Under Cunningham, the court must address each of the movant’s principal arguments unless they are “too weak to require discussion” or “without factual foundation.” That standard holds that to require discussion, the arguments must be “individualized of the facts” of movant’s case.

The Seventh Circuit concluded that Joiner failed to meet that standard. First, the CDC article discusses the disparity in societal living and working conditions among minority groups. Since it fails to provide a factual foundation that Black federal prisoners are a higher risk of severe COVID-19 complications than prisoners of other races, there was no error in failing to address the issue.

Second, Joiner failed to provide evidence that his skin color makes him more vulnerable to the virus in prison or at Marion. “Without any data or a factual foundation connecting generalized societal disparities in health care susceptibility or outcome to Joiner’s individualized circumstances at Marion (or even federal prisons generally), the district court was not required to discuss Joiner’s racial disparity argument,” wrote the Seventh Circuit in affirming the district court’s order. See: United States v. Joiner, 988 F.3d 993 (7th Cir. 2021).

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Related legal case

United States v. Joiner