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Easterbrook: Judge Can't Refuse to Screen Prisoner Lawsuit

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Few judges can hand down a benchslap with the same panache as our current law crush, Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook.

This week, Judge Easterbrook told District Judge Michael J. Reagan that he was three kinds of wrong for refusing to screen an Illinois prisoner Anthony Wheeler’s complaint alleging that prison officials had failed to provide effective medical care for his “golf-ball-size hemorrhoids,” leaving him in excruciating pain. (According to Judge Easterbrook, “Documents submitted with the complaint show that Wheeler is not fantasizing.” Yikes.)

District judges must screen prisoners' lawsuits before or "as soon as practicable after" docketing to ensure that the defendants in frivolous or malicious lawsuits don't get stuck with unnecessary legal costs. Even though Wheeler's complaint alleged claims for relief under the Eighth Amendment and 42 U.S.C. §1983, Judge Reagan "to this day has not screened the complaint."

Wheeler also filed multiple motions for a preliminary injunction that would compel the defendants to arrange for the operation he thinks essential. Judge Reagan addressed the issue after the third motion for injunctive relief. In a brief order, the judge declined to afford relief.

The order stated: "Plaintiff's allegations fail to set forth specific facts demonstrating the likelihood Plaintiff will suffer immediate and irreparable harm before the Defendants can be heard. Moreover, Plaintiff's motions seek similar relief to that sought in his complaint, which is still awaiting preliminary review by this Court. Furthermore, federal courts must exercise equitable restraint when asked to take over the administration of a prison, something that is best left to correctional officers and their staff."

Writing for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals panel, Judge Easterbrook noted that the district court's three grounds for denying Wheeler's motions are "inadequate, individually and collectively." In Easterbrook's words, here's why.

  1. Equitable relief depends on irreparable harm ... [but] ... to the extent the judge may have believed that pain never constitutes irreparable injury, however, he was mistaken.
  2. To the extent that the judge believed that his delay in screening the complaint justifies denying relief ... he was very far wrong. A judge's failure to act earlier is a reason to act now, not a reason to deny an otherwise meritorious motion. Just as prison administrators must deal promptly with their charges' serious medical problems, so federal judges must not leave litigants to bear pain indefinitely.
  3. Wheeler did not ask the judge to "take over administration of a prison"; he asked the judge to order the prison to honor his constitutional right to care for a serious medical condition ... Judges regularly must decide whether physicians have ignored a serious medical problem (or, in tort litigation, whether physicians have committed malpractice).

Was Wheeler's complaint perfect? No. It included too many defendants and too many unrelated claims. But Judge Easterbrook reminds district court judges that they are required to screen prisoner lawsuits, even the imperfect ones.

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