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Seventh Circuit Says No Evidence Illinois Prisoner Lied About Endangerment to Circumvent PLRA’s Three-Strikes Rule

by Matt Clarke

On February 1, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that a district court committed clear error when it found that a severely mentally ill Illinois prisoner lied about being endangered in an attempt to “sneak around” rules that would prevent him from proceeding in forma pauperis (IFP) as an indigent plaintiff not required to pay court filing fees.

The prisoner, Cordell Sanders, was diagnosed with severe mental illness at age 16. He was incarcerated in the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) in 2004, and by 2016 had spent eight years in solitary confinement at Pontiac Correctional Center. He had also accumulated three dismissals of federal suits, known as “strikes” under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g), meaning he could not file another federal lawsuit without prepaying the filing fees unless he could show that he was “under imminent danger of serious physical injury.”

In 2016, Sanders filed an IFP motion along with a civil rights lawsuit he took pro se to federal court for the Central District of Illinois, accusing DOC and its contracted healthcare provider, Wexford Health Sources, of engaging in a practice of refusing prisoners in solitary confinement any mental health treatment unless they attempted suicide, thereby endangering him by making it likely he would harm himself.

The district court initially granted his IFP motion under the “imminent danger” exception to PLRA’s three-strikes rule, but it was revoked after a status review found that none of Sanders’ allegations met the requirement. Obtaining counsel from Chicago attorneys with Kirkland & Ellis LLP and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, Sanders filed an appeal. The Seventh Circuit then vacated the lower court’s decision and remanded the case in 2017, allowing that “not all threats of self-harm by mentally ill prisoners permit them to proceed in forma pauperis,” but concluding nonetheless “that the potential self-harm that Sanders alleges may well be caused by the complained-of conduct.” See: Sanders v. Melvin, 873 F.3d 957 (7th Cir. 2017).

Back at the district court, and still represented by counsel, Sanders paid his filing fee, terminating his IFP status. Wexford then filed for summary judgment. DOC filed a motion for sanctions, alleging Sanders lied in his original pro se complaint about being denied mental health treatment. The judge agreed, citing “100 pages of mental health progress notes” documenting “that Sanders was seen 44 times” between 2015 and 2016, which proved self-harm was not a prerequisite to his receiving mental health treatment. As a sanction for that fraud, the lawsuit was dismissed without holding an evidentiary hearing.

Aided by Sidley Austin LLP attorneys Leslie Kuhn-Thayer from Chicago and Mitchell Brant Alleluia-Feinberg from Dallas, as well as Maggie E. Filler and Daniel Greenfield with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, Sanders once more appealed.

Taking up the case again, the Court noted that pro se pleadings are held to a lesser standard than those drafted by attorneys, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5 (1980). Moreover, the Court said that when it “cast Sanders’s complaint into ‘the liberal light in which we must take pro se pleadings,’” it was “compelled to conclude that this mentally ill prisoner with no legal training, drafting his complaint while housed in solitary confinement, may have ‘inartfully pleaded’ his claims, but there is no basis to say that he has committed a fraud on the court.” For that, the plaintiff must act intentionally or “with a degree of culpability that exceeds simple inadvertence or mistake.”

True, the Court allowed, Sanders admitted reporting suicidal tendencies just to gain access to mental health professionals. But he also had a lengthy record of actual self-harm, including multiple suicide attempts. Further, the 100 pages of mental health progress notes cited by the district court often showed visits that were only five or ten minutes long.

Given these facts, the Court’s panel of judges unanimously held that it was an abuse of discretion to find Sanders had committed fraud on the district court. When it cited his status as a “prolific litigator” and his knowledge of the “three-strikes” rule to assume fraud, the lower court held him to a higher standard than attorneys are held to. It also abused its discretion when it dismissed the lawsuit without even considering any lesser sanctions, though that was a moot point since the Court found no fraud. Therefore, it reversed the sanction and reinstated the case, remanding it to the district court for further proceedings. See: Sanders v. Melvin, 25 F.4th 475 (7th Cir. 2022).

The case has now returned to the lower court, where one of the first orders of business was taxing $505 in costs of the appeal to Defendants on March 11, 2022. PLN will report further developments as they become available. See: Sanders v. Moss, USDC (C.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:16-cv-01366.

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Related legal cases

Sanders v. Melvin

Sanders v. Moss

Sanders v. Melvin