7th Circuit affirms pro bono denial; judges may recruit to amend complaints

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the denial of a man’s request for pro bono representation, but not before correcting a district court’s reading of language about its discretion to recruit counsel until after the complaint was answered by the defendant.

Eric Mapes was arrested for trespassing after he got into an argument with CVS pharmacy employees who refused to issue him a money transfer. Upon his arrival at the Marion County Jail, Mapes alleged he was assaulted by guards and medical staff ignored his physical disabilities.

Mapes then sued the state of Indiana, CVS and others under the Americans with Disabilities Act, among other claims, while also moving for appointment of counsel. Mapes alleged he needed pro bono representation based on his poor hearing, social anxiety, speech disorder and his unidentified mental disability.

Southern District Court Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson dismissed Mapes’ complaint without prejudice for failure to state a claim, advising that he amend the complaint by, among other things, setting forth what happened during the incident and the facts that supported his belief that CVS refused to serve him because of his disability. The district court further told Mapes to bring unrelated claims in separate lawsuits, gave him a deadline, and informed him that failure to do so would result in the dismissal of his suit without further notice or opportunity to show cause.

The district court additionally denied Mapes’ request for appointment counsel, citing it as “premature,” because he had not yet filed a “viable complaint.” It also noted that because the defendants had not yet responded to the complaint, or even been served with process, that the district court could not reliably assess Mapes’ need for an attorney.

Instead of following the district court’s guidance to amend his complaint before the deadline, Mapes appealed his case. In Eric Mapes v. State of Indiana, 19-1384, Mapes argued the district court violated the ADA by denying his request for counsel, but the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed in a per curiam decision.

“Mapes demonstrated that he was physically able to file a complaint and mentally able to recall the events of January 21, 2019. The judge was not ‘required to offer [Mapes] legal guidance on whether and how to amend [his] pleadings,’ and under these circumstances, denying Mapes’s request for counsel and advising him on how to cure his complaint’s deficiencies was entirely reasonable,” the panel wrote. “If for any reason Mapes could not comply with the judge’s pleading instructions, he needed to explain why and renew his request for appointed counsel. He did neither. And Mapes hasn’t argued on appeal that he was incapable of following the judge’s directions.”

The panel also pointed out what it considered as a misreading from the district court of Kadamovas v. Stevens, 706 F.3d 843 (7th Cir. 2013) regarding its denial of Mapes’ request for pro bono counsel. It found that the language “simply acknowledges the difficulty of accurately evaluating the need for counsel in the early stages of pro se litigation.”

“Because ‘[t]he inquiry into plaintiff competence and case difficulty is particularized to the person and case before the court,’ it is not susceptible to judge-made bright-line rules,” the panel concluded. “So it’s incorrect to read this sentence in Kadamovas as restricting a district judge’s discretion to recruit counsel for a deserving plaintiff until after the defendant has answered the complaint. While such cases may be unusual, a judge may recruit counsel to help a pro se litigant amend his complaint.”

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