A firm team representing an Illinois prisoner achieved an important victory in the Seventh Circuit last week when the court reinstated the prisoner’s lawsuit challenging a private healthcare contractor’s deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. The court’s opinion paved the way for the prisoner to pursue his constitutional claims against the contractor in federal district court.
Robert Williams brought suit against Wexford Health Sources in 2017, challenging the contractor’s “one good eye” policy, under which it refuses critical eye care to prisoners like Mr. Williams as long as they retain a modicum of visual acuity in one eye. Although healthcare providers inside and outside the prison recommended eye surgery for Mr. Williams, Wexford refused that surgery for several years. At the time he filed suit, Mr. Williams was completely blind in one eye and suffering from a host of conditions in both eyes. The district court held that Mr. Williams’s complaint stated a colorable claim against Wexford for violating his constitutional rights. Yet the district court granted summary judgment in Wexford’s favor, holding that Mr. Williams failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act and the Illinois Administrative Code.
The Seventh Circuit reversed that decision last week. In a precedential opinion, the court clarified the standards applicable to prisoners like Mr. Williams who used the emergency procedures to seek expedited review of their grievances by prison officials. The court explained that while those emergency procedures were recently amended to require additional steps, those additional steps were not required of Mr. Williams, who submitted his grievances before the amendment. In reaching this result, the court emphasized the importance of transparency and clarity in the grievance process, and criticized the prison authorities for trying to “move the goal posts while [Mr. Williams] was in the middle of his case and suddenly announce that special new requirements applied to him.” The court also questioned Wexford’s “dubious” decision to refuse the surgery that Mr. Williams needed.
Associate Lauren J. Hartz briefed and argued the appeal, with supervision from Partner Ishan K. Bhabha. They were assisted by former summer associates Erica Turret and Ray Simmons. Partners Jessica Ring Amunson, Adam G. Unikowsky, and Devi M. Rao participated in moots, as did Associates Andrew C. Noll and Julian J. Ginos and former Associate Maria Liu. Paralegal Mary F. Patston provided invaluable support, and Partner Michael T Brody coordinated the court-appointment.
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