Justia U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Rights

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In 1996, Higgs murdered three women at a Maryland federal property. He was convicted in federal court and sentenced to death. Higgs claimed that the government failed to turn over exculpatory evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland. His 2012 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Park Police sought a complete copy of everything pertaining to the convictions. The Park Police produced some information, then referred the request to the FBI. Higgs filed suit, challenging the FBI’s decisions to redact or withhold information under FOIA Exemptions, 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(6), (b)(7)(C), and (b)(7)(D). Exemptions (6) and 7(C) cover materials that would invade personal privacy; Exemption 7(D) covers information that “could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source, … and, in the case of a record or information compiled by criminal law enforcement authority in the course of a criminal investigation … information furnished by a confidential source.” The district court concluded that the FBI properly withheld certain documents under Exemption 7(D), but did not justify the invocation of Exemption 7(C), and had to release all of the names of still-living people, contact information, reports of interviews, fingerprints, and rap sheets. T. The Seventh Circuit reversed in part. The court erred when it found that the public interest prevailed over the privacy interests of the persons involved under Exemptions 6 and 7(C). The court affirmed with respect to Exemption 7(D) materials. View "Higgs v. United States Park Police" on Justia Law

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The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) “three strikes” provision, 28 U.S.C. 1915(g), specifies that a prisoner may not proceed in forma pauperis if she “has, on [three] or more prior occasions, while incarcerated or detained in any facility, brought an action or appeal in a court of the United States that was dismissed on the grounds that it is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” Many courts require prisoner‐litigants to identify their entire litigation histories. The Northern District of Illinois’s form requires 42 U.S.C. 1983 inmate-plaintiffs to list the name of each case, assigned judge and court, docket number, filing date, all plaintiffs (with aliases), all defendants, a description of claims made, the disposition and date of disposition. In cases consolidated on appeal, the district court concluded that inmate-plaintiffs committed fraud. The Seventh Circuit vacated. District courts must ensure that a prisoner’s negligent or even reckless mistake is not improperly characterized as an intentional and fraudulent act. Even prisoners with no incentive to lie may not have ready access to their litigation documents and may not remember all of the details. When viewed in the liberal light appropriate for pro se pleadings, one inmate’s explanation of his mental health issues and illiteracy indicated he did not fully understand what was being asked of him; the omissions were inadvertent. None of the cases omitted by the inmates met applicable standards for materiality. View "Johnson v. Dalke" on Justia Law

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Paul Koh, 22, was found in a pool of blood next to a knife in his home, having been stabbed in the throat and chest. Officers initially noted a possibility of suicide. Paul's parents' requests to see Paul, get medicine and cell phone, and to go to the hospital were denied. They were taken to the police department and not allowed to make calls. Officer Kim, who spoke Korean socially, served as a translator but did not translate everything. Mr. Koh was questioned for 150 minutes. Koh claims Officer Graf “told me that the only person I could see was a lawyer... I didn’t have any phone numbers, so that was the end” and that Kim advised that he did not need an attorney. His Miranda warnings were in English. Some of Koh's responses were confusing or nonresponsive. Koh denied any involvement in Paul’s death. There was evidence suggesting a struggle and of tension in the family. During a second interview, officers pressed harder, stating, “We can be here for days” and asking questions at a rapid pace, with mistranslations. Koh gave short responses that could be interpreted as agreeing with Graf’s self-defense theory. Koh, acquitted on state murder charges after four years in the Cook County Jail, sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The district court denied the defendants summary judgment on false arrest claims, but held that Koh’s false arrest ended when the officers later had probable cause to arrest him; denied summary judgment on Koh’s coerced confession, conspiracy and failure to intervene, and municipal liability false arrest claims. The court granted the defendants summary judgment on Koh’s malicious prosecution, substantive due process, evidence-fabrication. and pretrial detention (Fourth Amendment) claims. The Seventh Circuit dismissed appeals on the issue of qualified immunity concerning coerced confession as inseparable from the questions of fact identified by the district court. View "Koh v. Ustich" on Justia Law

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Pretrial detainees at the Lake County Adult Correctional Facility allege that for approximately three days, jail officials shut off all water in their jail without any warning. The shutdown was apparently conducted in order to replace a pump. With no running water, the detainees were provided with five bottles of water for their personal and sanitation uses and with a communal barrel of water for each pod in the jail. As a result, they became ill and feces built up and festered in the jails’ toilets, attracting insects. When plaintiffs asked for more water, they were locked down in their cells as punishment. The detainees filed a putative class action, alleging violations of their Fourteenth Amendment due process rights. The district court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The rights that plaintiffs identify—to have enough water for drinking and sanitation, and not to be forced to live surrounded by their own and others’ excrement—are clearly established. Regardless of the legitimacy of the jail’s objective, taking as true the conditions described in the complaint, with plausible inferences, the conditions of confinement were objectively unreasonable and “excessive in relation to” any legitimate non-punitive purpose. View "Hardeman v. Wathen" on Justia Law

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Chicago Officers stopped Martin for non-functioning tail and brake lights. Martin claims he had not committed any traffic violations. Martin explained that he did not have his driver’s license. The officers asked Martin to step out of the car as additional officers arrived. Martin claims the officers forced him from the car, conducted a pat-down search, handcuffed him, put him into a police car, then searched his car, where they recovered a semiautomatic handgun with a defaced serial number and a baggie of crack cocaine. Martin had previously been convicted of first-degree murder and unlawful use of a weapon by a convicted felon. Martin was charged with various crimes under Illinois law and spent 65 days incarcerated. The state court granted Martin’s motion to suppress the evidence. The charges were dismissed. Martin filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The officers argued that even if the stop was unlawful, once officers saw the handgun and cocaine, they had probable cause for Martin’s arrest, which limited Martin’s damages to the period between his stop and his arrest. The district court agreed. The jury awarded him $1.00. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The jury concluded that the officers unlawfully seized Martin without reasonable suspicion, but found against Martin on the claim that officers either arrested him or searched him or his car without probable cause. The only Fourth Amendment injury being redressed is the brief initial seizure before officers asked for Martin's license. View "Martin v. Marinez" on Justia Law

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Lavite, a combat veteran, works in the Administration Building of Madison County, Illinois, as superintendent for the County’s Veterans Assistance Commission. In 2015, Madison County officials banned Lavite from the Administration Building indefinitely after learning that Lavite had experienced a PTSD episode during which he threatened a police officer and then kicked out the windows of a squad car. The ban lasted for nearly 20 months. Lavite kept his job but had to work remotely. Lavite had previously resisted efforts to use funds from the Commission’s budget for other county needs. Before the ban was lifted, Lavite filed suit. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Lavite’s right to assemble on government property was not violated because the ban on his presence in the building was viewpoint-neutral and reasonably motivated by legitimate safety concerns. None of the evidence supports a reasonable inference of causation between the ban imposed on Lavite in 2015 and his 2013 objections to the proposals to divert some of his Commission’s budget to other purposes. Lavite, having no alleged liberty or property interest, did not establish any due process violation. View "Lavite v. Dunstan" on Justia Law

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Evans, a state prisoner with multiple health issues, alleged that he developed nasal polyps and that the prison medical staff refused to authorize surgery, the only effective remedy. He sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging Eighth Amendment violations. The district court dismissed Evans’s case with prejudice as a discovery sanction. Kayira, one of the defendants, attempted to depose Evans. Kayira noticed the deposition by mail on February 16, for February 21. Evans swears that he did not receive that notice until February 22. When, on the 21st, he was taken from his cell to meet with the defendants’ lawyers, he says that he had no idea why they were there and was feeling ill and could not sit for the deposition. Evans refused to be sworn or to answer questions. The Seventh CIrcuit reversed. Although dismissal is sometimes the proper sanction for a discovery violation, it is one of the harshest sanctions a court can impose. Courts must be especially careful before taking that step. If a party appears for his deposition but refuses to cooperate, the proper procedure is to obtain a Rule 37(a) order, directing him to be sworn and testify. The order permitting Evans’s deposition was far from an order compelling Evans to do anything. In addition, Evans was entitled at least to actual notice. View "Evans v. Griffin" on Justia Law

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Until 2013, Wozniak had tenure on the University of Illinois faculty. He waged an extended campaign against students who did not give him a teaching award. As he had done before when the University enforced school policies, Wozniak filed suit. Disagreeing with the University’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the Board of Trustees terminated Wozniak. After the Committee had issued its report, Wozniak posted the entire document and evidence on his website, revealing the identities of the students involved. Wozniak also filed a state court civil suit seeking damages from the students, planning to get a judicial order requiring the students to sit for depositions. Wozniak sued the University alleging violations of the First Amendment. The district court granted the defendants summary judgment. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Wozniak was fired for intentionally causing hurt to students, and refusing to follow the Dean’s instructions, not simply for publicizing the effects of his actions. Wozniak acted in his capacity as a teacher and used his position to inflict the injuries that precipitated his discharge. The First Amendment does not govern how employers respond to speech that is part of a public employee’s job. How faculty members relate to students is part of their jobs. Speech that concerns personal job-related matters is outside the scope of the First Amendment, even if that speech is not among the job’s duties. View "Wozniak v. Adesida" on Justia Law

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In 1997, Campos began working as a Cook County Sheriff’s Office correctional officer. In 2011, he was arrested for driving under the influence, striking a vehicle, and leaving the scene of an accident. Campos self-reported. The sheriff suspended him without pay and referred him for termination. The Merit Board has exclusive authority to terminate Sheriff’s Office employees. While the Board proceedings were ongoing, a state court granted Campos’s motion to suppress and quashed his arrest. The Board voted to terminate Campos. The circuit court vacated that decision as too vague to allow for judicial review and remanded. In 2017, the Board again voted to terminate Campos. The circuit court again remanded based on a defect in the Board’s composition. It had been almost seven years since the sheriff suspended Campos without pay. Rather than wait for a third Board decision, Campos filed suit in federal court, arguing that the protracted proceedings have violated his substantive due process rights. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of his claims. Campos has not met the high standard for stating a substantive due process claim. Employment rights are not fundamental rights and Campos identified no independent constitutional violation. The eight-year process is not so arbitrary or outrageous as to violate substantive due process. View "Campos v. Cook Countyx" on Justia Law

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Three Chicago police officers stopped three black men in a grey sedan to investigate a shooting that had happened nearby a few hours earlier. When the passengers sued a year later, none of the officers remembered the Terry stop. They relied on other evidence to show that reasonable suspicion had existed. Cell phone footage taken by one of the plaintiffs during the encounter depicted Sergeant King, the officer who initiated the stop, citing the plaintiffs’ suspicious behavior in the area of the shooting as the reason that he had pulled them over. A police report showed that dispatches to officers, including King, identified the suspects as three black men in a grey car. The descriptions of the car’s model varied. The district court held that these descriptions were close enough to justify the Terry stop and that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because the stop did not violate clearly established law. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, rejecting a “suggestion” that the defendants’ failure of memory was a concession of liability. The Fourth Amendment does not govern how an officer proves reasonable suspicion for a Terry stop; he can rely on evidence other than memory. The police report demonstrates what King knew and the cell-phone video shows him giving the shooting as the reason for the stop. View "cTorry v. City of Chicago" on Justia Law