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Prisoner wins right to recruit counsel in federal civil suit

July 28, 2014

A prisoner was improperly denied counsel to help with discovery in his federal lawsuit that claimed a medical provider was deliberately indifferent to glaucoma that ultimately required removal of part of his eye.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed an order of summary judgment in favor of the healthcare provider Friday in Leonard Dewitt v. Corizon, Inc., et al., 13-2930.

District Judge William T. Lawrence in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Indiana, Terre Haute Division, denied Leonard Dewitt’s motions to recruit counsel and granted summary judgment to Corizon, which provided medical care to Dewitt while he was incarcerated.

“Because we find that the district court abused its discretion in denying the motions for recruitment of counsel, and those denials affected Dewitt’s ability to develop and litigate his case, we will not reach the merits of the summary judgment order. Therefore, we reverse and remand so that the court may recruit counsel and so Dewitt can conduct further discovery in order to litigate the case,” Judge Ann Claire Williams wrote for the 7th Circuit panel.

Lawrence found in favor of Corizon because he reasoned that doctors exercised reasoned professional judgment inconsistent with deliberate indifference to Dewitt’s condition, but the 7th Circuit found Dewitt was prejudiced by denial of counsel to assist with discovery.

“(C)ould a lawyer have helped Dewitt present sufficient facts to create a genuine issue about why the doctor declined to follow a specialist’s recommendations or advised a continuation of ineffective treatments that prolonged his pain? We think there is a reasonable likelihood counsel could have aided here and made a difference in the outcome,” Williams wrote.

The District Court also improperly disregarded Dewitt’s Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(f) request for additional time for discovery. “While a district court has broad discretion to deny such motions … it is improper to decide summary judgment without first ruling on a pending 56(f) motion,” the 7th Circuit held.

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