7th Circuit reinstates prisoner case after 3 denied requests for counsel

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A prisoner’s case has been reinstated after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found the Indiana Northern District Court’s denial of his three requests for appointed counsel prejudiced him.

While serving his 40-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter in the Westville Correctional Facility, Leonard Thomas sued, pro se, numerous correctional officers for a host of claims, alleging his requests for medical care — especially concerning his mental health treatment — were improperly denied or ignored.

Thomas, whose mental illness history began before his incarceration, has been diagnosed with epilepsy, antisocial personality disorder and anxiety. Prior to his incarceration, his symptoms included suicidal ideations, paranoia and hallucinations.

Thomas also complained about the effects of psychotropic medications he had been taking that were discontinued and alleged that correctional officials failed to protect him from self-harm, including three suicide attempts in the span of roughly one year and an incident when he was  pepper sprayed.

Thomas was denied his first two requests for appointed counsel, with the Northern Indiana District Court, citing Pruitt v. Mote, 503 F.3d 647 (7th Cir. 2007) (en banc), concluding he had not made a reasonable effort to obtain counsel on his own. It determined his 14 letters to various attorneys seeking representation did not provide information about the claims he was pursuing, and some pre-dated certain events in his complaint.

Additionally, the district court found the claims he would pursue were unclear given the 26 defendants Thomas initially had listed in the complaint.

The trial court also cited Thomas’s medical records that showed average intellect, intact memory and a logical thought process, as well as his numerous coherent requests for medical care. Thus, even without assistance from other inmates, Thomas could prepare an amended complaint and move for appointment of counsel again, the court ruled.

A third request for appointed counsel was also denied when the district court found Thomas himself could ask an attorney who represented him in another case to represent him in the case at hand. It also found Thomas’ failure to approach that attorney showed he had not reasonably attempted to obtain counsel on his own, as required under Pruitt.

The case was ultimately dismissed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(b).

But the 7th Circuit reversed and remanded for the prisoner in Leonard Thomas v. Nicholas Wardell, et al., 17-2582, finding that Thomas made reasonable attempts to obtain counsel and that the district court did not assess whether he appeared competent to litigate his case given its difficulty.

The 7th Circuit found as insufficient the district court’s order denying Thomas’ third request for counsel, noting it “cursorily dismissed Thomas’s 2016 request on the grounds that Thomas did not personally reach out to that lawyer.”

“Thomas’s working relationship with that attorney and the district court’s failure to take that relationship into account calls into question the district court’s conclusion that Thomas did not reasonably try to get a lawyer,” Circuit Judge Michael Brennan wrote for the 7th Circuit. Brennan likewise noted the district court failed in its third denial to consider or mention Thomas’ competence to litigate the case himself, as required by Pruitt.

Additionally, the 7th Circuit pointed out that the first two denial orders failed to cover Thomas’ literacy, communication skills and litigation experience. It similarly noted that neither of the district court’s orders denying counsel contended with the complexities of Thomas’ medical evidence or grappled with his allegations that certain defendants deviated from the standard of care.

Thus, the district court abused its discretion in denying Thomas’s motions for counsel, and this erroneous denial prejudiced Thomas because it most likely resulted in his case being dismissed,” the 7th Circuit wrote, reversing and remanding for counsel to be appointed to Thomas.

The 7th Circuit further found the district court provided insufficient grounds on which to dismiss Thomas’ case for failure to prosecute, noting that “dismissal for failure to prosecute as a result of one missed deadline is arbitrary and an abuse of discretion.” It therefore vacated the dismissal, reinstated the case and remanded it to the district court for further proceedings.

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