Felton v. City of Chicago, 062816 FED7, 14-3211

Docket Nº:14-3211
Opinion Judge:WILLIAMS, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
Party Name:Joseph Felton, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. City of Chicago, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
Judge Panel:Before Posner, Williams, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:June 28, 2016
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

Joseph Felton, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

City of Chicago, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

No. 14-3211

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

June 28, 2016

Argued February 16, 2016

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 14-cv-6857 - Milton I. Shadur, Judge.

Before Posner, Williams, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

WILLIAMS, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

Joseph Felton sued the City of Chicago and its police superintendent, alleging that police officers used excessive force in arresting him. The district judge consulted newspaper accounts of the arrest and then, without requiring an answer from the defendants, dismissed the suit as frivolous. But the suit was not frivolous and the judge should not have dismissed it by relying on newspaper stories. We reverse.

I. BACKGROUND

We recite the facts assuming the truth of Felton's allegations. On March 15, 2014, Felton was in a car in Harvey, Illinois, when he was approached by an unmarked car with "black tinted windows." This caused Felton, who was unarmed, to fear for his life. He fled, turning onto the expressway and heading toward Chicago. Chicago police officers "chased" him along the expressway and fired their guns at him (but Felton does not say he was hit). The officers then "ram[med]" their cars into his, causing him to "swerve out of control" and crash. At some point, he was "shot by 6 different stu[n] guns." As a result of the officers' actions, Felton was "put into critical condition" and suffered broken bones, bruises, a concussion, lost vision, and other injuries. He underwent several surgeries and suffered "excruciating pain and mental anguish." He brought this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging the officers used constitutionally excessive force.

Because Felton was incarcerated when he filed suit, the district judge conducted an initial screening of the complaint. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. The judge noted that the allegations were insufficient to state claims against the only defendants that Felton named-the City of Chicago and its police superintendent (in his official capacity). Because that problem could be cured by an amendment (naming the officers who were actually involved in the incident), the judge moved on to what he saw as "more grievous problems."

The judge found it "painfully obvious" that Felton's complaint "had omitted critical facts" which would "cast more light" on whether the officers caused Felton's injuries, or whether his injuries "resulted from his own flight in what appeared from his narrative to be a high-speed chase." So the judge consulted three newspaper accounts of Felton's arrest. "Instead of expending further resources in recapping what those newspaper accounts reflected, " the judge merely attached them as exhibits to his order. Then, without explanation, the judge declared that Felton was trying "like the alchemists of the Middle Ages, to transmute base metal into gold." So the judge dismissed the entire suit as "frivolous." See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1).

Felton appealed and we appointed him an attorney. Though the City did not participate in the proceedings below, we invited it to file an appellate brief. It declined, so we appointed an amicus curiae to defend the judgment.

II. ANALYSIS

District judges must screen prisoner complaints as soon as practicable and must "dismiss the complaint, or any portion of the complaint, if the complaint is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted." 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1). Felton's complaint was dismissed as "frivolous, " which means "lack[ing] an arguable basis either in law or in fact." Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989).

The judge did not say whether the fatal flaw was factual or legal, so we consider each possibility. We review a dismissal for factual frivolousness for an abuse of discretion. Gladney v. Pendleton Corr. Facility, 302 F.3d 773, 775 (7th Cir. 2002). Allegations are not frivolous unless they are "clearly baseless, " "fanciful, " "fantastic, " "delusional, " "irrational, " or "wholly incredible." Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 32–33 (1992). Felton's allegations-that when he fled officers along an expressway, they chased him, rammed his car, and used stun guns on him-were not frivolous. See id. at 33 (allegations that are merely "unlikely, " "improbable, " or "strange" do not meet the frivolousness standard). If the judge dismissed the suit as factually frivolous, he abused his discretion.

A claim is legally frivolous if it is "based on an indisputably meritless legal theory." Neitzke, 490 U.S. at 327–28. Our review is plenary. Billman v. Ind. Dep't of Corrs., 56 F.3d 785, 787 (7th Cir. 1995). Felton's theory is familiar: he says officers used excessive force in...

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