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Seventh Circuit Reinstates Illinois Prisoner’s Suit Over ‘Orange Crush’ Shakedown

by David M. Reutter

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held on August 25, 2021, that a district court erred in dismissing a state prisoner’s pro se lawsuit by failing to make a finding that the plaintiff willfully abused the judicial process or otherwise conducted the litigation in bad faith.

The prisoner, Kelly D. Ebmeyer, claimed that during a shakedown at Hill Correctional Center (HCC) on April 16, 2014, guards with the Special Operations Response Team, known as the ‘Orange Crush,’ subjected him to a humiliating, unconstitutional strip search and excessive force.

He alleged that an unidentified ‘John Doe’ team member placed him in extremely tight handcuffs, causing him injury. He further claimed that Sgt. Jeffrey Oelberg struck him with a baton, squeezed his testicles, and forced him to stand against the wall in a stress position for three hours. He also accused prison officials Joseph Yurkovich and Kevwe Akpore of promulgating policies that encouraged the guards’ misconduct.

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois granted Oelberg, Yurkovich and Akpore’s motion for summary judgment on May 17, 2017, finding Ebmeyer failed to exhaust administrative remedies with grievances against them. It then retained HCC Warden Akpore as a defendant to assist Ebmeyer in identifying the John Doe defendant. See: Ebmeyer v. Yurkovich, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 234925 (C.D. Ill.).

Ebmeyer was ordered to provide a description of Doe at a deposition hearing, after which the district court learned that he had been aware for some time that the Doe defendant’s first name was Adam. So the district court issued an order to show cause why it should not dismiss the case for Ebmeyer’s failure to disclose this information earlier. It then rejected his explanation and dismissed the suit with prejudice on March 18, 2019. See: Ebmeyer v. Yurkovich, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 203566 (C.D. Ill.).

Ebmeyer appealed, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the case against defendants Oelberg, Yurkovich, and Akpore, finding that Ebmeyer failed to file a grievance concerning them and thus had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as required under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e.

But in its pique over Ebmeyer’s failure to identify the Doe defendant, the district court had followed a de facto rule under which it held that dismissal is the only effective sanction for a plaintiff proceeding in forma pauperis, as Ebmeyer was. The Seventh Circuit held this was an error.

First, there was no showing that Ebmeyer acted in bad faith or engaged in an “apparent pattern of delay or contumacious conduct.” In fact, he had nothing to gain by delaying identification of the defendant who harmed him. The Court said it was also plausible that Ebmeyer misunderstood the district court’s order to describe the Doe defendant in physical terms only.

If the district court found a sanction was necessary, the Court said, it should have considered “a warning from the court” or even “a small financial sanction,” taking certain facts to be established by the opposing party or dismissing Ebmeyer’s suit without prejudice.

Thus, the district court’s order was reversed and remanded for it develop the record to support justifying a sanction of dismissal. See: Ebmeyer v. Brock, 11 F.4th 537 (7th Cir. 2021). 

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Ebmeyer v. Brock

Ebmeyer v. Yurkovich

Ebmeyer v. Yurkovich