McCaa v. Hamilton

Decision Date27 June 2018
Docket NumberNo. 16-4209,16-4209
Citation893 F.3d 1027
Parties Randy MCCAA, Plaintiff–Appellant, v. Todd HAMILTON et al., Defendants–Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

Anthony J. Dick, Attorney, Washington, DC, Nicole C. Henning, Attorney, Chicago, IL, Jones Day, for PlaintiffAppellant.

Sean Michael Murphy, Attorney, Office of the Attorney General, Wisconsin Department of Justice, Madison, WI, for DefendantsAppellees.

Before Kanne, Rovner, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

Kanne, Circuit Judge.

Randy McCaa filed a pro se complaint in 2016, alleging that prison officials at the Green Bay Correctional Institution deliberately disregarded his risk of suicide, causing him to suffer serious physical injuries on four different occasions. Over the course of the litigation below, McCaa filed four motions asking the district court to recruit counsel for him. The district court denied all four and ultimately granted summary judgment to the defendants-appellees.

When denying McCaa’s third motion to recruit counsel, however, the district court did not specifically address circumstances that bore on McCaa’s ability to competently litigate his own case. This was an abuse of discretion that prejudiced McCaa. Accordingly, we vacate the district court’s judgment and remand McCaa’s case for further proceedings.


McCaa suffers from various mental illnesses, and he has a history of self-injury and suicide attempts. In this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit, he alleges that officials and staff at Green Bay Correctional Institution were deliberately indifferent to his self-harm on four separate occasions. After screening McCaa’s pro se complaint in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, the district court allowed five of McCaa’s deliberate indifference claims to go forward. Four of the claims relate to the officials’ failure to prevent McCaa’s self-harm from December 2013 to August 2015, and one relates to the officials’ failure to obtain medical assistance for McCaa after a self-harm incident in May 2014.

Along with his pro se complaint, McCaa filed a motion to appoint counsel. There is no right to court-appointed counsel in federal civil litigation, but an indigent civil litigant may ask the district court to request an attorney to represent the litigant pro bono . 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e) ; Pruitt v. Mote , 503 F.3d 647, 649 (7th Cir. 2007) (en banc). The district court properly construed McCaa’s motion to appoint counsel as a motion to recruit counsel under § 1915(e). Id. at 654.

In support of his motion for counsel, McCaa posited that the issues in the case are complex, with several different claims involving different sets of defendants, and that the success of these claims would come down to a credibility contest. McCaa also indicated that he has serious mental illnesses, a fifth-grade reading level, little legal knowledge, and extremely limited access—as a segregation inmate—to the law library and witnesses.

The district court denied the motion without prejudice, reasoning that: "McCaa appears able to coherently present his case. His filings demonstrate that he is able to communicate his positions and submit court papers as he requires or deems appropriate." (R. 16 at 8.)

McCaa filed a second motion to appoint counsel about a month later. In addition to his previous points, he noted that he has a learning disability, that he had been transferred to a new prison facility, and that he did not know where his witness was located. The district court denied the motion, again without prejudice, writing: "Nothing has changed since the Court’s [last] order which would alter its result. The Court still finds that the plaintiff can adequately communicate his positions and submit court papers as he requires or deems appropriate." (R. 26 at 1–2.)

About two months after that denial, and after discovery began, McCaa brought his third motion for counsel. McCaa reiterated the competency and complexity points he had raised in his previous motions. To further support his claim that the case was complex, he noted that a second attorney had recently joined the defense team. He also indicated that he would have difficulty getting opposing counsel to produce documents now that the case was in the discovery stage. And, McCaa told the district court, he previously relied heavily on other prisoners for litigation assistance but recently was having difficulty getting help. (Indeed, one prisoner submitted a declaration claiming he drafted McCaa’s motion for reconsideration and amended complaint at the start of litigation. (R. 19 at 2–3.) )

Again, the district court denied McCaa’s motion. For the first time, it specifically noted McCaa’s mental illness and reading disability, but reasoned that those attributes did not weigh in favor of recruiting counsel because "he appears to be able to present cogent arguments and navigate the litigation process, particularly as demonstrated by his filings since his second motion." (R. 53 at 1.) As for the case’s complexity, McCaa "claims that the case is complex, citing the fact that a second assistant attorney general has entered his appearance in the matter. This is no evidence of the matter’s complexity." (Id. (citations omitted).) Lastly, the court indicated that McCaa’s inability to secure help from other prisoners was "of no moment at this stage; the plaintiff has been ably litigating the matter from its inception and the Court has no evidence that this will not continue." (Id. at 1–2.)

Accordingly, McCaa continued through the discovery stage of his case pro se . He did not conduct any depositions, and it appears he had some difficulty securing discovery from the defendants, (see, e.g., R. 58, Letter to the Court). But, he had a verified complaint that served as an affidavit, and he secured three additional declarations from witnesses.

After the defendants moved for summary judgment, McCaa filed his fourth and final motion for counsel. In it, McCaa argued that he was having difficulty contacting witnesses who were no longer incarcerated, that he could not present a case at trial without a lawyer, and that his case was worthy for a jury. The district court denied the motion at the same time it granted summary judgment to the defendants. It gave two reasons for doing so. First, "McCaa has been ably litigating this matter since its inception," and second, "McCaa’s statements in the latest motion would only be relevant if this case were proceeding to trial, but it is not." (R. 80 at 18.)

The case was not proceeding toward trial because, the district court reasoned, the defendants were entitled to judgment as matter of law. In so concluding, the district court took all of the defendants’ proposed facts as undisputed because McCaa did not properly cite any evidence despite instructions from the district court on how to do so, (R. 31–1–31–7). It dismissed his case, and McCaa appealed.

On September 28, 2017, this court indicated we would recruit counsel for McCaa’s appeal and advised that the recruited counsel should address whether the district court abused its discretion in denying McCaa’s requests for counsel. That issue is before us now.


We leave the decision to recruit counsel under § 1915(e) to the district court’s discretion, but that discretion is to be "guided by sound legal principles." Pruitt , 503 F.3d at 654 (quoting Martin v. Franklin Capital Corp. , 546 U.S. 132, 139, 126 S.Ct. 704, 163 L.Ed.2d 547 (2005) ). In Pruitt , we announced those principles, instructing district courts to analyze (1) whether the plaintiff has made a reasonable attempt to obtain counsel and (2) whether the plaintiff appears competent to litigate the case himself, given the difficulty of the particular case at hand. Id. The failure to engage in this analysis is necessarily an abuse of discretion, but we only reverse based on that error if the plaintiff shows prejudice. Id. at 658–59.

In this case, the first inquiry is not at issue: the district court found that McCaa had made reasonable attempts to obtain counsel without success, and the defendants-appellees do not contest that finding on appeal. Accordingly, our analysis focuses on whether the district court reversibly erred when undertaking the second inquiry: whether McCaa was competent to litigate his case given its particular complexities.

For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the district court reversibly erred when it denied McCaa’s third motion for counsel without addressing certain circumstances bearing on the complexity of the case and McCaa’s competency to litigate it himself.

A. The district court abused its discretion in denying McCaa’s third motion for counsel .

The components of the second inquiry—competency and complexity—are "necessarily intertwined," id. at 655, but the district court must still address both elements, id. at 649, 55. Though "we have resisted laying down categorical rules regarding recruitment of counsel," id. at 656, (and we continue to do so in this case), we have previously held that a district court abuses its discretion when it does not take note of "certain circumstances [that] demand particular judicial consideration." James v. Eli , 889 F.3d 320, 327 (7th Cir. 2018). This is because "[t]he inquiry into plaintiff competence and case difficulty" should be "particularized to the person and case before the court." Pruitt , 503 F.3d at 656.

"Though the district court need not address every point raised in recruitment motions, it must address those that bear directly on whether ‘the difficulty of the case—factually and legally—exceeds the particular plaintiff’s capacity as a layperson to coherently present it....’ " Dewitt v. Corizon, Inc. , 760 F.3d 654, 659 (7th Cir. 2014) (quoting Pruitt , 503 F.3d at 655 ). Courts should consider any relevant evidence raised "in support of the request for counsel, as well as the pleadings, communications from, and any contact with the plaintiff." Pruitt at 655 ; cf. id . at 656, (not...

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