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.
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.