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Inmate’s suit alleging 8th Amendment violation allowed to continue

August 9, 2012

A federal judge was incorrect in dismissing an inmate’s lawsuit alleging Eighth Amendment violations by prison staff who ignored his abdominal pain for months until the inmate was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

Danny Richards began complaining in January 2008 about pain and blood in his stool; prison physicians said he was fine. In October 2008, Richards was sent to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. At that point, there was nothing doctors could do but remove his colon and construct an ileo-anal pouch.

Richards sued prison medical staff in December 2010, citing their indifference to his serious medical condition. The District Court dismissed the complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) following a motion by the defendants, ruling the lawsuit untimely.

This was wrong, the 7th Circuit ruled, because Indiana requires the judiciary to toll the time limits for incapacitated persons. Richards claimed that he did not file the suit within the applicable statute of limitations because the three surgeries he had disabled him for extended periods of times, that when he was out of the hospital he was in constant pain and unable to walk, and only filed the suit when he had the energy to do so.

These allegations may not be true, but they are plausible, and no more is required of a pleading, Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote. A motion under Rule 12(b)(6) tests whether the complaint states a claim on which relief may be granted; his complaint does that so it can’t properly be dismissed under that rule, Easterbrook continued.

The suit also couldn’t have been dismissed under Rule 12(c), he pointed out. The federal judge rejected Richards’ plead of incapacity, only saying his reasons for delay are “unpersuasive.” But a judge can’t reject a complaint’s plausible allegations by calling them unpersuasive, Easterbrook said. Only a trier of fact can do that, after a trial.

This case has not reached the point where Richards’ allegations of physical incapacity are put to the test. Once he has an opportunity to produce evidence material to the tolling question, its sufficiency under Indiana law can be tested by a motion for summary judgment, the court held. Easterbrook also wrote that before proceeding further, the District Court should consider carefully “whether to assist Richards in finding a lawyer who can muster the facts and, if necessary, secure medical experts.”

 

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