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

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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Walker, a Stateville Correctional Center inmate, has an incurable motor neuron disease, primary lateral sclerosis (PLS). PLS causes weakness in his voluntary muscles. Walker alleges that Stateville’s healthcare providers (Wexford and Dr. Obaisi) were deliberately indifferent to his medical needs after he underwent spinal surgery in 2011. Walker claims they failed to ensure he received proper follow-up care and allowed undue delays in his treatment by outside experts, which delayed his diagnosis and caused him to suffer from the undiagnosed PLS in the interim. The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Dr. Obaisi made a reasonable medical judgment to delay referring Walker until he had more information and could make a more informed referral request. Obaisi responded to Walker’s changing symptoms and was receptive to the specialists’ recommendations. That Walker’s pain and other symptoms did not subside is not evidence of Obaisi’s deliberate indifference, considering that Walker voluntarily stopped taking pain medication. Obaisi did what he could within the limits of his role to move Walker’s treatment forward. Wexford refers many inmates, and the specialists have a finite number of appointments available. Absent evidence that Wexford was on notice that these wait times were likely to cause constitutional violations, but failed to act in response, Wexford cannot be liable. View "Walker v. Wexford Health Sources, Inc." on Justia Law

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An Airbnb guest at Wonsey’s Chicago home reported to police that his belongings disappeared after he lost consciousness from a seizure. The gate to Wonsey’s house was locked; no one responded to the doorbell. Sergeant Valentin called the theft victim, who gave Valentin the entry code. Valentin then went to the door and rang the doorbell. Two men opened the door and, as shown in Wonsey’s security video footage, allowed Valentin inside. The officers saw residents scattered throughout the first floor who appeared to have been sleeping in the living areas. Wonsey refused to allow officers to see where the theft victim was staying and told them to leave. The officers complied. Wonsey walked them outside. Valentin described the encounter as “friendly.” The officers did not arrest Wonsey nor conduct a search. Days later, prompted by a police request, the buildings department sent out inspectors accompanied by police officers. A man sitting on Wonsey’s porch opened the gate. Wonsey willingly allowed the inspectors inside. The police waited outside. The inspectors recorded 32 code violations and concluded the house should be immediately evacuated. The inspectors asked the police to assist with “emergency evacuations.” Officers entered the house and stayed in the common areas. Wonsey refused to leave. Wonsey sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in the defendants’ favor, stating that Wonsey did not allege any Fourth Amendment violations; her arguments were “unsupported, careless, and irrelevant.” View "Wonsey v. City of Chicago" on Justia Law

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The Swartzes acquired horses, goats, and a donkey on their Washington County, Indiana hobby farm. In 2013, the county’s animal control officer, Lee, contacted Dr. Lovejoy, an Indiana State Board of Animal Health veterinarian, for help evaluating a thin horse he observed on the Swartzes’ property. Lee and Lovejoy visited the Swartzes’ farm to evaluate the animals four times. Lovejoy reported a significant decline in the animals’ welfare and expressed concerns about the conditions in which they were kept. Lee sought, in a standard, ex parte proceeding, a finding of probable cause to seize the animals. The Superior Court of Washington County determined that there was probable cause to believe animal neglect or abandonment was occurring and entered an order to seize the animals (IC 35-46-3-6). The animals were seized and the state filed animal cruelty charges against the Swartzes. The court eventually ordered permanent placement of the animals for adoption. The state deferred prosecuting the Swartzes with a pretrial diversion agreement. The Swartzes filed a federal suit, alleging a conspiracy to deprive them of their property. The Seventh Circuit vacated the district court’s rulings (in favor of the defendants) and remanded for dismissal due to a lack of federal subject matter jurisdiction. The Swartzes’ claims are inextricably intertwined with state court judgments, requiring dismissal under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. View "Swartz v. Heartland Equine Rescue" on Justia Law

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Wisconsin prisoner Brown cut himself severely while in restrictive housing. Brown sued the prison nurses, asserting that they had exhibited deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. The Wisconsin Department of Justice and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin have a 2018 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that covers 42 U.S.C. 1983 lawsuits by an incarcerated person, when those cases must undergo initial screening by the district court under 28 U.S.C. 1915A. In the MOU, the state DOJ gives “limited consent to the exercise of jurisdiction” by Magistrate Judges over several things, including, without qualification, the initial screening. Following its routine procedures and the MOU, the district court sent the case to Magistrate Duffin for initial screening. Brown consented (28 U.S.C. 636(c)) to the authority of the magistrate to resolve the entire case. Duffin found that Brown failed to state a claim, stating that “[t]his order and the judgment to follow are final” and appealable to the Seventh Circuit. Under Circuit precedent, a magistrate judge does not have the authority to enter a final judgment in a case when only one party has consented to the magistrate’s jurisdiction. Two defendants had not been served. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, holding that the state defendant may consent in advance to the magistrate’s jurisdiction to conduct the initial case screening and, if the plaintiff has also filed consent, the magistrate may enter final judgment dismissing the case with prejudice. View "Brown v. Doe" on Justia Law

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Miller cut a hole in his bathroom wall and secretly filmed teenage girls—friends of his own children—undressing and showering. Federal authorities investigated and, after extensive discussions, offered to allow Miller to plead guilty to possessing child pornography, an offense with a maximum penalty of 10 years’ imprisonment. Miller rejected the offer and went to trial, where he was convicted of the greater offense of producing child pornography and sentenced to 18 years. The Seventh Circuit, having previously rejected Miller’s challenge to his conviction and sentence on direct review, affirmed the district court’s denial of his petition for post-conviction relief under 28 U.S.C. 2255. Miller failed to show that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance during plea negotiations. Miller’s counsel credibly testified that he fully informed Miller of the risks of rejecting the plea to simple possession and facing a charge of producing child pornography but that Miller insisted on going to trial on the view that accepting a 10-year sentence for possessing child pornography was tantamount to receiving a life sentence. The attorney and Miller “spent a long, long time” reviewing the case law informing the question whether the video images “met the federal definition of lascivious” and Miller made the ultimate decision to not accept the government’s offer. View "Miller v. United States" on Justia Law

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Dr. Johnston, a prison psychologist, provided psychological services to Nigl, a Wisconsin Department of Corrections prisoner, serving a 100-year sentence. On Johnston’s last day of work, Nigl kissed her. The two began communicating by mail, email, and phone and became engaged. Johnston returned to employment with the Department and submitted a “fraternization policy exception request” but did not disclose their romantic relationship. Johnston’s supervisor never processed the request, but the two continued to have contact, in violation of Department policy. The Department learned about the relationship and terminated Johnston. Johnston later requested to visit Nigl. The request was denied under state rules because she had been a Department employee less than 12 months earlier. During investigations, staff found letters and photographs from Johnston in Nigl’s cell; some were sent under an alias. Some photographs depicted Johnston in sexually suggestive poses. Johnston had also set up a phone account under the alias and engaged in phone sex with Nigl. The Department reported the relationship to the Psychology Examining Board, which suspended Johnston’s license. Johnston submitted additional unsuccessful visitation requests. Nigl requested permission to marry Johnston and grieved the denial. The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment, rejecting their 42 U.S.C. 1983 lawsuit. The denial was reasonably related to legitimate penological interests. Nigl and Johnston engaged in a pattern of rule-breaking and deception in furtherance of their relationship and the Psychology Examining Board concluded that Johnston violated rules designed to protect patients. The 2017 decision is not tantamount to a permanent denial. View "Nigl v. Litscher" on Justia Law

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In 1991 Daniels was sentenced to 35 years in prison for drug-trafficking crimes he committed while leading a violent Milwaukee street gang in the 1980s. Based on two of his many prior crimes, he was sentenced as a career offender under the then-mandatory Sentencing Guidelines but the designation did not affect his sentencing range: 360 months to life. More than two decades later, Daniels moved to vacate his sentence under 28 U.S.C. 2255 citing the Supreme Court’s 2015 Johnson decision, which invalidated the “residual clause” in the Armed Career Criminal Act as unconstitutionally vague. Daniels argued that the identically phrased residual clause in the career offender guideline is likewise unconstitutionally vague and that one of the predicate convictions for his career-offender status qualified only under the residual clause. The district judge disagreed, relying on the Supreme Court’s 2017 Beckles decision, which forecloses vagueness challenges to the post-Booker advisory Sentencing Guidelines. In the meantime, the Seventh Circuit held that defendants who were sentenced under the mandatory Guidelines may bring Johnson-based vagueness challenges to the career-offender guideline. The Seventh Circuit nonetheless affirmed Daniels’s sentence. Daniels was wrongly designated a career offender but the error was harmless because it did not affect his sentence. View "Daniels v. United States" on Justia Law

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In September 2011 Chicago Police Officers stopped and searched the plaintiffs without justification and took them to Homan Square, which was later exposed as a den of police misconduct. The officers interrogated them for several hours, omitting Miranda warnings and ignoring repeated requests for an attorney. The plaintiffs were denied food, water, and access to a bathroom. The officers tried to coerce false confessions and threatened to file false charges against the plaintiffs if they told anyone about their mistreatment. Fearing for their safety, the plaintiffs did not seek legal redress. In early 2015 a newspaper ran an exposé on Homan Square. In March the plaintiffs sued the city and the officers. The 42 U.S.C. 1983 lawsuit was dismissed under the two-year statute of limitations. A minute order issued on March 31, 2016. The judge issued her opinion on January 31, 2018, with a Rule 58 judgment. A week later, the plaintiffs filed their notice of appeal and docketing statement. By operation of Federal Rule 4(a)(7)(A), the time to file a notice of appeal expired 180 days after the minute order. The Seventh Circuit declined to dismiss an appeal but affirmed the dismissal. The defendants’ Rule 4(a) objection was untimely under Circuit Rule 3(c)(1) but the suit was untimely. Precedent forecloses the plaintiffs’ equitable estoppel theory. View "Vergara v. Chicago" on Justia Law

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Six-year-old Swannie was found unresponsive on the bottom of a man-made swimming pond operated by the City of West Bend. She never regained consciousness and died days later. Swannie’s estate alleged federal constitutional (42 U.S.C. 1983) and state-law violations by the West Bend Parks Director, seven lifeguards, and the city. The theory of the constitutional claim was that the swimming pond is a state-created danger and the defendants acted or failed to act in a way that increased the danger. The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The Due Process Clause confers no affirmative right to governmental aid and the evidence is insufficient to permit a reasonable jury to find a due-process violation premised on a statecreated danger. No reasonable jury could find that the defendants created a danger just by operating a public swimming pond or that they did anything to increase the danger to Swannie before she drowned. Nor was their conduct so egregious and culpable that it “shocks the conscience,” a necessary predicate for a court to find that an injury from a state-created danger amounts to a due-process violation. View "Estate of Swannie Her v. Hoeppner" on Justia Law

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A Downers Grove ordinance limits the size and location of signs. Leibundguth claimed that it violated the First Amendment because its exceptions were unjustified content discrimination. The ordinance does not require permits for holiday decorations, temporary signs for personal events such as birthdays, “[n]oncommercial flags,” or political and noncommercial signs that do not exceed 12 square feet, “[m]emorial signs and tablets.” The Seventh Circuit upheld the ordinance. Leibundguth is not affected by the exceptions. Leibundguth’s problems come from the ordinance’s size and surface limits: One is painted on a wall, which is prohibited; another is too large; a third wall has two signs that vastly exceed the limit of 159 square feet for Leibundguth’s building. The signs would fare no better if they were flags or carried a political message. A limit on the size and presentation of signs is a standard time, place, and manner rule. The Supreme Court has upheld aesthetic limits that justified without reference to the content or viewpoint of speech, serve a significant government interest, and leave open ample channels for communication. The Village gathered evidence that signs painted on walls tend to deteriorate faster than other signs. Many people believe that smaller signs are preferable. Absent content or viewpoint discrimination, that aesthetic judgment supports the legislation, which leaves open ample ways to communicate. View "Leibundguth Storage & Van Service, Inc. v. Village of Downers Grove" on Justia Law