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Seventh Circuit: Local Rules Requiring Specific Filings to Summary Judgments Should Not be Used as a Sanction

by Dale Chappell

Providing an example of how the rules apply to everyone—even pro se prisoners—the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the motion of summary judgment (MSJ) by the district court in denying a prisoner’s federal civil lawsuit claiming bad medical care at the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility.

Somehow, Victor Robinson was given the wrong medication and afterwards he passed out and hit his head. How this happened was even more troubling since Robinson wasn’t even on medication. Still, staff directed him to take this medication and he followed their orders. After he was rushed to a local hospital with a closed head injury, he sued prison officials in federal court for “deliberate indifference” to his medical needs. After screening under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, the district court allowed three claims to proceed and ordered prison staff to respond to the lawsuit. That’s where things went south for Robinson.

Prison staff filed a motion for summary judgment, asking the district court to grant judgment in their favor because Robinson’s claims were deficient. Basically, they said that he failed to allege claims that could meet the strict standard for deliberate indifference. Part of the reason staff’s MSJ was granted was because Robinson failed to properly respond to the MSJ. Instead, he reargued his claims and provided even more details as to why staff provided bad medical care that caused his injury. That was fatal to his lawsuit, since the facts alleged by prison staff in their MSJ were “admitted” in the record.

While the court of appeals ruled that the district court properly granted summary judgment to prison staff, it didn’t agree with how the lower court went about it. “The district court was wrong to say that Robinson’s failure to oppose the [MSJ] was sufficient grounds, standing alone, to grant the motion,” the court said. “Regardless of the local rules, a failure to file a timely response to such a motion is not a basis for automatically granting summary judgment as some kind of sanction.”

With that said, the court upheld the grant of summary judgment and the denial of Robinson’s lawsuit because his claims all failed on their merits. The court said that no jury could conclude that the medical provider at the prison violated Robinson’s constitutional right by failing to intervene, that he failed to argue an underlying constitutional violation in the first instance, and that his state claims of negligence were barred by state law because he never identified the staff by their real names.

These are lessons learned the hard way for a pro se prisoner who was clearly harmed by staff’s incompetence in ordering him to take medication that was not his and in following those orders. See: Robinson v. Waterman, 1 F.3d 480 (7th Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal case

Robinson v. Waterman