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A Great Decision for Protecting Mentally Ill Inmates

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

This is one of those decisions that gives you warm and fuzzy feelings about hope for the quietest voices of our legal system.

Kennard Lee Davis is a pro se inmate with schizoaffective disorder. Needless to say, assisting in his representation, or hearing his claims, isn't easy. And he seems to have at least a handful of claims, as he now alleges that he was punished for filing prisoners' rights litigation against the State of California.

His two current claims passed the 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a) screening, so the complaints at least assert cognizable claims.

However, as a forcibly medicated prisoner with significant mental health issues, he's indisputably incompetent. When the district court was unable to find him pro bono assistance, the magistrate judge's solution (adopted by the district court) was to stay the case indefinitely, until Davis was "restored to competency." In other words, stayed permanently. On Monday, the Ninth Circuit reversed the order as an abuse of discretion, ensuring that even unsympathetic, mentally impaired inmates have their cognizable claims heard.

Guardian Ad Litem

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 17(c)(2) governs these situations. It provides that:

"A minor or an incompetent person who does not have a duly appointed representative may sue by a next friend or by a guardian ad litem. The court must appoint a guardian ad litem -- or issue another appropriate order -- to protect a minor or incompetent person who is unrepresented in an action."

No one disputes that Davis is incompetent, and indeed, in the Central District of California, where his habeas proceedings are underway, the court appointed a guardian ad litem for that very reason. The magistrate judge here contacted the Eastern District of California's Pro Bono Coordinator, who notified the court that no one was available.

The judge's solution, then, was to stay the consolidated claims until Davis was competent, and to remove them from the active docket, effectively dismissing the case.

In its lengthy discussion over the appealability of the stay order, the Ninth Circuit panel, citing alternatively Moses H. Cone and Cohen v. Beneficial Loan Corp., noted:

"Ordinarily, a stay order is not an appealable final decision. [citation] However, because the already lengthy and indefinite stay puts Davis 'effectively out of court,' the stay order on these facts 'amounts to a dismissal of the suit' and is reviewable as a final decision under § 1291."

Ignoring the Case is an Abuse of Discretion

Though the deferential "abuse of discretion" standard applies to review of a district court's ordered remedy under Rule 17, it was clear that the Ninth Circuit was unhappy with the lower court's decision:

"Instead of satisfying the obligation created by Rule 17(c) to ensure that Davis's interests in the litigation would be adequately protected, the district court closed the courthouse doors, aware of the strong probability that Davis would not soon return. The district court's order was thus not an 'appropriate order' to fulfill its mandate to protect Davis's interests."

And in case the holding wasn't clear enough, the court emphasized, that "[w]e read Rule 17(c) to require a district court to 'take whatever measures it deems proper to protect an incompetent person during litigation.'"

While sensitive to the problem of finding resources to help incompetent inmate plaintiffs, the panel noted that the district court could have checked with bar associations, law school clinics, or senior centers. At minimum, it could have put Davis on a wait list for guardian ad litem services, or at bare minimum, stayed the case with periodic status hearings until representation was located.

But staying the case and taking it off the active docket, effectively dismissing it? Not so much.

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