Judge Barrett’s Decisions on Law Enforcement III

Mistreatment of Prisoners and Other Detainees

Before reading this summary, please read the overview for context.

McCottrell v. White (2019)

Two prisoners, John McCottrell and Dustin Clay, were eating lunch when a couple of inmates began to fight. Corrections officers then intervened and incapacitated the combatants with pepper spray. Moments later, two prison guards stationed above the dining hall fired a warning shot that hit four inmates, including Messrs. Clay and McCottrell. Although the prison had a target for warning shots, specifically intended to prevent this from happening, the guards hadn’t aimed at it. [2-4] McCottrell and Clay sued. Judge Amy St. Eve rejected their claim, granting summary judgment for the defendants.

The guards testified that they had fired at the ceiling. The prisoners asserted that the guards had shot into the crowd but had no direct evidence of this (except the word of two other inmates; for whatever reason, the plaintiffs could not secure their testimony, so their word was inadmissible hearsay). Judge St. Eve therefore accepted the guards’ claim that they fired at the ceiling. Judge Rovner, writing (with Judge Hamilton) for the court of appeals, held that the number of prisoners hit and the severity of their injuries was circumstantial evidence that the guards had pointed their guns at the prisoners. [4-9] The truth should therefore have been decided by a jury, not by a court on summary judgment.

Moreover, even if the guards had fired at the ceiling, summary judgment was inappropriate. Early accounts of the incident suggested that the guards had not fired their “warning shots” until the fight was already over, in which case they would serve no legitimate purpose. [9-11, 23, and note 9 at pages 14-15] Additionally, that the guards had avoided the ‘shot box” intended to minimise ricochet could be construed as evidence that they intended to hit the prisoners. [22-26] Based on this evidence, a jury could infer that the guards satisfied the requirements for excessive force. [22-33] Therefore, summary judgment was inappropriate and the lawsuit should go to the jury.

Judge Barrett disagreed. Because the standard for liability was that the guards had acted “maliciously and sadistically,” Barrett would have required proof that the guards intended to hit the prisoners. [37-39] She had found no claims, successful or rejected, which were not based on such an argument. [39] Judge Barrett found no evidence that the guards had intended to hit the prisoners and thought that unnecessary shots that may have hit the prisoners were merely reckless, not sadistic. [39-45]

Pittman v. County of Madison (2020)

Reginald Pittman was in jail, awaiting trial, for four months. He requested crisis counselling but did not receive it. Eventually, Pittman hanged himself, surviving but rendering himself vegetative. [2]

Pittman sued the county (or, more accurately, Robin Hamilton sued the county on Pittman’s behalf) on the grounds that it had failed to provide him proper medical care. The jury found for the defendants.

Pittman appealed, arguing that the instructions to the jury misstated the standard for liability. That standard had been set in 2018 in the case Miranda v. County of Lake, which required that the defendants’ actions were both purposeful and objectively unreasonable [4-5]. Judge Barrett decided that the jury instructions were wrong, because the instruction to consider whether the defendants “consciously failed to take reasonable measures to prevent [Pittman] from harming himself” would have led the jury away from reasonableness and towards “deliberate indifference,” a more subjective standard that the court of appeals had recently rejected. [6-7] The court of appeals therefore ordered a new trial. Barrett also rejected Pittman’s attempt to introduce evidence that the trial court had rejected. [8-11]

Purtue v. Wisconsin Department of Corrections (2020)

Although this is a sex discrimination case, I include it here because it stems from an (alleged) assault in a prison.

Lisa Purtue was a correctional officer at a state prison. She quarreled with a prisoner and reported that he hit her with an empty box of cakes, for which he was put in segregated detention. A video showed that the box did not come close to hitting her. The warden concluded that she was lying and fired her. [2-3]

Purtue introduced evidence that the Department of Corrections was more likely to fire female employees than male ones. [4-5] Nevertheless, Chief Judge James Peterson concluded that the Department’s decision was justified and that the statistics did not indicate that Purtue herself had been fired because of bias. He therefore granted summary judgment to the defendants. [5]

Purtue appealed, arguing that the district court had looked at each piece of evidence in isolation. Judge Barrett disagreed. Purtue admitted that she’d made a false report, a potentially serious act of wrongdoing. [7-8] The court attached little weight to her expert’s testimony that the Department fired staff “inconsistently,” because he did not dispute that filing a false report was a major infraction of the rules, and rejected her statistics on colleagues who were or weren’t fired because all differed from her in significant respects other than sex. [8-9] Her claim therefore failed.

Walker v. Price (2018)

Frederick Walker, a prisoner in Illinois, possessed an IQ of 76 and the intellectual capacity of a primary school pupil. [4] He was moved to a new (worse) cell by two prison guards, which they claim was because he began kicking the door of his old cell. [3] Mr. Walker claims that he complained and was punished with movement to the new cell, a beating, and the denial of medical care for his injuries. [3]

With the help of a jailhouse lawyer named Marlon Minter, Walker sued the guards, asking the court to recruit a lawyer to represent him. He argued that he was reliant on Minter and lacked both the physical and intellectual resources to represent himself. The magistrate judge denied his request, opining that the case was simple and Walker had represented himself in six earlier cases. [3-6] Walker filed four more such motions and the court denied them for the same reasons. The sixth and final motion was “noticeably less articulate,” because Minter had been transferred to another prison, but Judge Harold Baker nevertheless denied it on the same grounds (including the high quality of the previous motions). [6-7]

The defendants requested that the trial take place by video-conference, because transporting Walker to the courthouse would be too expensive and dangerous, based on his extremely violent criminal and disciplinary history. The district court held that the risk of prejudice would be minimized by use of a large electronic screen but the trial was later transferred to another courtroom, which may not have had such a large screen. [6-7] The jury found for the defendants.

Walker appealed the denial of the final motion for the court to recruit a lawyer. Judge Barrett held that Walker was no longer competent to try the case because it had reached the stage of a jury trial, by video-conference no less, and Walker had lost Minter’s assistance and had cognitive difficulties that impaired his performance. [8-11, 13-16] Judge Barrett stressed, however, that cases such as Walker’s or cognitive impairments did not necessarily warrant recruitment of counsel; this case came out as it did because of the complexity of a video trial. [12-13] Judge Barrett also emphasised that there was no need for a court to re-evaluate previous motions to recruit counsel and hinted that, had the court tried but failed to recruit counsel, that would have been fine. [Note 1 on page 9 and note 2 on page 16]

Williams v. Wexford Health Sources, Inc. (2020)

Robert Williams, a prisoner in Illinois, developed a cataract in his left eye. He began to lose vision, eventually becoming completely blind in that eye, and to experience other symptoms. Doctors recommended removal of the cataract, which was a common operation. Wexford Health Services – which provides medical services for prisons in Illinois – refused, based on its “one good eye” policy. As the name suggests, and true to the (horrifying) form of healthcare in American prisons, the policy permitted surgery only when a prisoner would otherwise become blind in both eyes. Mr. Williams later developed a cataract in his right eye, as well, but Wexford did not approve surgery because Williams still had some visual acuity in one of his eyes.

This case turns on the procedural complexities of the prison grievance process, so please forgive the detail. Prisoners are typically required to discuss grievances with a counselor before filing a formal grievance in writing (which, if rejected, could be appealed). [5] In an emergency, defined as “a substantial risk of imminent personal injury or other serious or irreparable harm to the offender,” a prisoner could request expedited treatment by filing a petition directly with the warden. [5-6] At the time, the regulations did not state what would happen if the warden deemed the situation was not an emergency (although they have since been clarified to state that an ordinary grievance should be filed). [6]

Williams first filed an emergency grievance petition with the warden, which was rejected. He might have appealed and, if so, might have received a response (both parties changed their stories on appeal). [3] Williams filed a second emergency petition, which the warden rejected, and definitely appealed this one. The review board did not decide on the merits, rejected the petition because Williams had failed to follow the standard (i.e. non-emergency) process, and did not request any more information from Williams. [3-4] Finally, Williams sued Wexford in federal court. Judge Joe Billy McDade granted summary judgment for Wexford because Williams had not exhausted the prison grievance process, as prisoners are required to do before suing. [4-5]

The court of appeals treated the first grievance as properly completed because Wexford failed to contest the point before the district court. [6-7] The question was whether Williams had completed the process for his second grievance. Because the review board rejected Williams’ grievance without explanation or a request for further information, Chief Judge Wood (writing for the court) concluded that the prison had effectively created a new requirement for Williams. On the basis of the case Thornton v. Snyder, and reasoning that grievance procedures must be transparent as to what was required of a prisoner, the court held that Williams had exhausted the procedures. [8-12]

Judge Barrett agreed with the majority about the outcome of this case, because (essentially) Wexford failed to prove that Williams hadn’t fulfilled his obligations. [13] Nevertheless, Barrett disagreed with the majority about the extent of those obligations. Barrett cited a Supreme Court case, Ross v. Blake, to argue that Williams was required to utilise all procedural options “available” to him. [14] Because the standard grievance procedure was available to him, Williams was obligated to pursue it, regardless of whether it was reasonable for him to think otherwise. [14-16]

The wider law notwithstanding, Williams is able to press his suit in district court.

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