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

Articles Posted in Civil Rights
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Holleman, a “jailhouse lawyer,” has been awarded thousands of dollars in prior lawsuits. In 2015, Pendleton Correctional Facility (Superintendent Zatecky) transferred Holleman to Wabash. Zatecky stated that Holleman had written letters complaining of the conditions at Pendleton and, given the age of the facility, the only viable solution was to transfer Holleman to a more modern facility. Zatecky claims to have believed that the transfer was in Holleman’s best interest. Holleman was housed in the general population at both maximum-security prisons, with similar restrictions. Holleman claims he witnessed more violence at Wabash and that Wabash inmates are afraid to report violence; that Holleman was the victim of violence from his new cellmate (he did not report this incident); that he only had access to the Wabash law library for four hours per week, as opposed to seven hours per week at Pendleton; and that at Pendleton he had an individual cell. Reversing the district court, the Seventh Circuit held that the transfer did not violate Holleman’s clearly established right to be free from retaliation for protected First Amendment activity, such that his suit can overcome qualified immunity. Holleman complained about inadequate conditions at Pendleton; the Defendants responded by transferring him. Even taking the facts in the light most favorable to Holleman, they do not support a finding that the transfer was motivated by the fact that he engaged in protected activity rather than the substance of his complaints. View "Holleman v. Zatecky" on Justia Law

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Thomas was convicted of the voluntary manslaughter of his uncle and is serving a 40-year sentence at Indiana’s Westville Correctional Facility. He has a history of mental illness which began before his incarceration; his symptoms include suicidal ideations, paranoia, and hallucinations. Thomas has also been diagnosed with epilepsy, antisocial personality disorder, and anxiety, for which he has received various medications while incarcerated. Thomas sued state correctional officials, alleging deficient health care, inadequate conditions of confinement, and that officers treated him with excessive force. The district court found Thomas’s pro se complaint deficient and gave him opportunities to remedy its problems but ultimately dismissed his case for failure to prosecute. The court also denied three requests by Thomas for appointed counsel. The Seventh Circuit reversed the dismissal. The district court abused its discretion by denying Thomas’s requests to appoint counsel. Thomas made reasonable attempts to obtain counsel and the court did not assess whether Thomas appeared competent to litigate the case given its difficulty. This outcome prejudiced Thomas. The court remanded for the appointment of an attorney. The district court also provided insufficient grounds on which to dismiss Thomas’s case for failure to prosecute. View "Thomas v. Wardell" on Justia Law

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Donald and Lauretta Bauer purchased land from Donald’s parents and executed promissory notes and a mortgage. When Donald’s parents died, their interest in the notes transferred to Donald's siblings, who sought foreclosure. A state court entered a foreclosure judgment and a deficiency judgment. No judicial sale occurred. The Bauers tried to redeem the property by satisfying the judgment. The foreclosure plaintiffs issued citations to discover assets and sought additional interest. The state court found that the Bauers owed an additional $33,782.96 in interest. The Bauers paid; the plaintiffs filed a satisfaction of judgment. The Bauers then sued, alleging tampering with evidence and abuse of process by seeking to extort money through the issuance of citations to discover assets. The state appellate court upheld the dismissal of the case. The Bauers filed a federal suit, 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging that the defendants, including the state-court judge, conspired to introduce a forged document into evidence during the foreclosure trial and that the judge and the clerk allowed the plaintiffs to issue baseless citations to discover assets. The district court dismissed the case under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which precludes federal district-court jurisdiction “over cases brought by state-court losers challenging state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced.” The Seventh Circuit affirmed, rejecting the Bauers’ argument that they did not seek to set aside the state court’s order or judgment but only mean to challenge the “collection practices” of the defendants and their collusion. Any finding in favor of the Bauers would require the federal court to contradict the state court’s orders. View "Bauer v. Koester" on Justia Law

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In 2011, the petitioners pleaded guilty to violating 18 U.S.C. 924(c) for brandishing a firearm during a “crime of violence”—theft from a federally licensed firearms dealer, 18 U.S.C. 922(u). In 2016, both moved under 28 U.S.C. 2255 to vacate their section 924(c) convictions, citing the Supreme Court’s 2019 “Davis” holding that a violation of section 922(u) no longer counts as a crime of violence. The district court denied relief. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Express collateral-attack waivers in both plea agreements are valid and bar their challenges to their convictions and sentences. The petitioners did not satisfy any recognized bases for avoiding a valid collateral-attack waiver. The court rejected their arguments that they were asserting a non-waivable “jurisdictional” challenge to the constitutionality of the statute of conviction; that allowing their convictions to stand would result in a “miscarriage of justice”; and that their section 924(c) convictions rest on a “constitutionally impermissible factor.” View "Ross v. United States" on Justia Law

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Mascow, a teacher who had tenure under Illinois law, was laid off in 2017. Because her latest rating was “unsatisfactory,” she was first in line for layoff when the school lost one position and lacked any recall rights if the school district began hiring again—as it did. She sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging that the Due Process Clause entitled her to a hearing before the layoff and that the “unsatisfactory” rating violated the First Amendment. Mascow became co-president of the Union in 2010. Her First Amendment claim rests on her actions in 2014 and 2015 in notifying administrators that planned activities would violate the collective bargaining agreement. The school canceled one event and revised the other. The district court rejected both claims, reasoning that a reasonable jury could not find that the 2014 and 2015 meetings caused a reduction in Mascow’s ratings, noting that Mascow’s co-president, who attended the 2015 meeting, retained an “excellent” rating. The Seventh Circuit affirmed with respect to the First Amendment but vacated with respect to the due process claim. Neither the district judge nor the parties’ briefs addressed how teachers can obtain review of their ratings and whether those opportunities satisfy the constitutional need for “some kind of hearing.” View "Mascow v. Board of Education of Franklin Park School District No. 84" on Justia Law

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While confined in the Cook County Jail, Koger accumulated books in his cell. Guards removed more than 30. Prisoners may not have more than three books or magazines at a time (excluding religious and legal materials). On remand, the judge granted the defendants summary judgment, holding that the policy is valid under the First Amendment and that it is irrelevant whether the guards asked Koger which books he wanted to keep or what the Jail did with the confiscated books. The Seventh Circuit affirmed in part. The court noted Cook County’s stated reasons for the policy: books can be used for coded messages among prisoners, making it necessary to leaf through pages when doing a property search; books may be used to hide drugs, weapons, and other forbidden items. Curtailing the need for labor-intensive searches is a good reason for limiting the number of books in a cell. The court remanded in part. Koger lost a possessory interest in the books but he did not automatically lose his property interest. He was entitled to sell or ship the books, or reclaim them after his confinement. In addition to ascertaining the Jail’s policy, the district court must decide what choices, if any, were offered to Koger concerning the excess books and what became of them. View "Koger v. Cook County" on Justia Law

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The cause of Cory's 2006 death was undetermined. The police later reopened the investigation. A grand jury indicted her husband, Lovelace, an Illinois criminal defense lawyer. Lovelace's first trial resulted in a hung jury. In his 2017 retrial, a jury found him not guilty. In a suit against under 42 U.S.C. 1983, Lovelace claimed that the defendants fabricated evidence, coerced witnesses, and concealed exculpatory evidence. The case was assigned to Judge Myerscough. A year later, the case was reassigned to Judge Bruce. Months later, the plaintiffs successfully moved to disqualify Bruce. The case was reassigned back to Myerscough, who informed counsel about circumstances that might seem relevant to her impartiality, her usual practice. Myerscough's daughter had just been hired as an Exoneration Project attorney. The plaintiffs’ law firm funds the Project and donates the time of its attorneys. The plaintiffs’ attorney stated that she worked with the judge’s daughter at the Project but did not supervise her and was not responsible for her compensation. Screening was implemented. Myerscough had recently attended a fundraiser for Illinois Innocence Project, where her daughter previously worked. The fundraiser recognized “exonerees,” including Lovelace. Defendants unsuccessfully requested that Myerscough disqualify herself under 28 U.S.C. 455(a). The Seventh Circuit denied a mandamus petition. There was no reasonable question as to Myerscough’s impartiality; no “objective, disinterested observer” could “entertain a significant doubt that justice would be done” based on the fundraiser. Section 455(b) requires recusal only if a judge’s close relative is “acting as a lawyer in the proceeding” or is known “to have an interest that could be substantially affected.” Nothing beyond the bare fact of the daughter’s employment poses a risk of bias. View "Gibson v. Myerscough" on Justia Law

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Bridges, a Cook County Department of Corrections pretrial detainee, fell out of the upper bunk to which he had been assigned and injured himself. He sued, asserting that his injuries were caused by the defendants’ practice of ignoring medically necessary lower bunk prescriptions. Bridges cited five lawsuits filed by detainees who alleged that, between 2005 and 2012, they were injured when using upper bunks after their lower bunk prescriptions were ignored. The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants. A local government may not be sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983 for an injury inflicted solely by its employees or agents; it is when the execution of a government’s policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy, inflicts the injury that the governmental entity is responsible under section 1983. The Department houses thousands of detainees, with hundreds entering and leaving on a daily basis; three or five incidents over a seven-year period is inadequate as a matter of law to demonstrate a widespread custom or practice. Nothing connected the incidents and they were not so common as to place the defendants on notice of a widespread practice. View "Bridges v. Dart" on Justia Law

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As a result of a 2009 stroke, Perry, serving a long sentence for murder, suffers from aphasia, which impairs his ability to speak, write, and understand words. Perry pursued direct and collateral review in Indiana’s courts. On collateral attack, an appointed lawyer abandoned the case. Five months after dismissing the state proceeding in order to obtain assistance, he refiled it. The state judge dismissed the renewed application, ruling that the original dismissal was with prejudice. Perry then filed a federal petition under 28 U.S.C. 2254, which was summarily dismissed as untimely. Time during which a properly-filed state collateral attack is pending is excluded from the one year available to file in federal court, 28 U.S.C. 2244(d)(2), but the federal judge determined that Perry’s second state proceeding was not properly filed because a second or successive collateral attack in Indiana requires judicial permission that Perry did not seek. The court declined to apply equitable tolling: Perry displayed all of the diligence needed for tolling but did not encounter any extraordinary circumstance that blocked timely filing because aphasia is not an “external” obstacle, The Seventh Circuit vacated. The record does not permit a determination of whether Perry’s difficulties stem from a brain injury that left him unable to understand or use language well enough to protect his interests or from his failure to do enough legal research to understand which time in state court would be excluded under section 2244(d)(2). View "Perry v. Brown" on Justia Law

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Robertson brought claims against DHS and two DHS employees, Mattke and Evan, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, alleging retaliation for complaining of discrimination in the workplace. The district court dismissed the claims against Evans and Mattke because Title VII authorizes suit only against an employer as an entity, not against individuals, then granted summary judgment, holding that Robertson’s retaliation claim against DHS for failing to promote her to a director position failed because she could not prove a “but-for” causal link between her protected activity (reporting discrimination) and DHS’s decision not to promote her. With respect to her second retaliation claim, alleging that DHS continued the retaliation against her through Evans, the court held that Robertson failed to establish that she suffered an adverse action. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. With respect to her failure-to-promote claim, DHS provided a nonretaliatory reason for choosing another candidate. Robertson failed to submit evidence that DHS’s reason was pretextual. Robertson failed to “identify such weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, or contradictions” in DHS’s stated reason for hiring Evans over her “that a reasonable person could find [it] unworthy of credence.” With respect to her claim that DHS continued the retaliation through Evans, Robertson has failed to show that she suffered a materially adverse action. View "Robertson v. Wisconsin Department of Health Services" on Justia Law