Seventh Circuit Finds Correctional Staff Deliberately Indifferent to Inmate’s Back Pain

July 26, 2017

In Lewis v. McLean, No. 16-1220, the Seventh Circuit Appellate Court found that a Wisconsin prisoner had presented sufficient evidence that the prison staff had caused unnecessarily prolonged pain to survive summary judgment. The lower court had granted summary judgment to the prison staff and the Seventh Circuit reversed.

The prisoner, James Lewis, claimed that he experienced severe back pain from 5:15 a.m. until after he reached the hospital approximately 4 hours later. He was diagnosed with muscle spasm and was unable to move. He first complained of the pain around 6:00 a.m. Lewis was told that the nurse could not see him until he came to the cell door to be restrained. He stated that he was unable to move and could not walk to the cell door. The officer told Lewis that he could not receive any medical treatment until he was restrained. Around 6:40 a.m., the officer watched the video recording of his cell and confirmed that Lewis had remained motionless on his bunk since 5:15 a.m. Despite confirming that Lewis had not moved, the officer and nurse did nothing until 7:30 a.m., when a supervisor saw Lewis edge himself off the bed, fall to the floor on his knees, and collapse on the floor where he remained. A supervisor went to his cell and the on-call physician was called. Dr. Meena Joseph directed that Lewis be taken to the hospital. Lewis was removed from his cell with a wheelchair and arrived at the hospital by 9:00 a.m.

The Court found that Lewis’ descriptions of excruciating pain was sufficient to support a finding that Lewis’ medical condition, back spasm, was serious. The Court then concluded that the officer and nurse who first saw Lewis acted with deliberate indifference by demanding that Lewis comply with orders to go to the cell door when Lewis could not moved, even though the officer confirmed via video that Lewis had not moved since 5:15 a.m. The Court noted the disparity between the defendants’ inaction and the quick response of the supervisor after Lewis collapsed on the floor. Viewed in the light most favorable to Lewis, the Court noted, the facts showed that the defendant officer and nurse encountered a prisoner in severe distress, crying in pain, and unable to move, and did nothing.

Judge Manion concurred in the opinion, arguing that the length of time that Lewis sat in pain may not be enough to establish deliberate indifference in all circumstances. He noted that the particular facts of this case (that the officer confirmed that Lewis was immobile for 90 minutes via video) permit denial of summary judgment. Judge Manion also argued that taking an inmate to the hospital for treatment and being entirely cured within 5 hours of suffering pain is a far cry from the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Lewis v. McLean, No. 16-220

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