DeLaurence Robinson v. Dale Scrogum, et al
Filed opinion of the court by Judge Rovner. We VACATE the district court s judgment and REMAND for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. Joel M. Flaum, Circuit Judge; Kenneth F. Ripple, Circuit Judge and Ilana Diamond Rovner, Circuit Judge. [6887798-1]  [16-3363]
United States Court of Appeals
For the Seventh Circuit
DALE SCROGUM, et al.,
Appeal from the United States District Court for the
Central District of Illinois.
No. 13‐1282 — James E. Shadid, Judge.
SUBMITTED OCTOBER 18, 2017* — DECIDED DECEMBER 4, 2017
Before FLAUM, RIPPLE, and ROVNER, Circuit Judges.
ROVNER, Circuit Judge. DeLaurence Robinson, an inmate
in Illinois, alleged in this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that
* We have agreed to decide this case without oral argument because the
briefs and record adequately present the facts and legal arguments, and
oral argument would not significantly aid the court. See FED. R. APP. P.
five guards at Pontiac Correctional Center beat him in 2011
as punishment for filing grievances. The district court initial‐
ly permitted Robinson to proceed on claims of retaliation
and excessive force, but later dismissed the case, reasoning
that Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641 (1997), bars the suit be‐
cause some of Robinson’s allegations about the altercation
conflicted with his disciplinary conviction for assaulting the
guards. Because we conclude that the district court abused
its discretion in declining to recruit counsel for Robinson, we
vacate the judgment and remand for further proceedings.
According to Robinson’s complaint, the guards were es‐
corting him up a flight of stairs when one of them yanked on
his handcuffs, causing him to lose his balance and hit his
head on a cage. Rather than assist Robinson, the guards
shoved him to the ground and proceeded to assault him: one
guard put her foot on the side of his face and others kneed
him in his neck and back. The guards then propped him up
and dragged him to his cell, stopping periodically to hit him
or drop him on the hard floor. Throughout this encounter,
the guards taunted Robinson (who is black) with racial epi‐
Robinson denies that he resisted the guards, but a disci‐
plinary committee found him guilty of attempted assault.
Specifically, the committee found that he “jerked away”
from a guard, tried to “throw his shoulder into” the guard,
refused to walk, and tried to bite and spit at other guards.
The committee ordered six months of good‐time credit re‐
voked and sentenced him to a year of disciplinary segrega‐
This suit followed. Robinson’s complaint alleged claims
of retaliation, excessive force, and denial of equal protection.
The district court dismissed Robinson’s equal‐protection
claim at screening (a decision he does not challenge on ap‐
peal). Nearly three years later, when the case finally reached
the summary‐judgment stage, the district court concluded
that Edwards barred Robinson’s remaining claims.
In Edwards, the Supreme Court extended to the prison‐
disciplinary context its holding in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S.
477 (1994), that a plaintiff may not pursue a claim for relief
that would necessarily imply the invalidity of a still‐intact
criminal conviction. The district court recognized that Ed‐
wards would not bar Robinson’s suit if he argued that the
guards used more force than was reasonably necessary to
subdue him, but the court concluded that Robinson
“plead[ed] himself out of court” by insisting that he did
nothing to provoke the beating he received from the guards.
Robinson now challenges the merits of the summary
judgment order, but we do not reach that issue because we
agree with him that the court erred by denying his requests
for counsel. Though there is no automatic right to recruit‐
ment of counsel in civil cases, a pro se litigant’s requests for
counsel are entitled to careful consideration. See Diggs v.
Ghosh, 850 F.3d 905, 911–12 (7th Cir. 2017); Dewitt v. Corizon,
Inc., 760 F.3d 654, 657 (7th Cir. 2014). And when an indigent
plaintiff reasonably tries to obtain counsel and requests that
counsel be recruited, the district court should ask “whether
the difficulty of the case—factually and legally—exceeds the
particular plaintiff’s capacity as a layperson to coherently
present it to the judge or jury himself.” Pruitt v. Mote, 503
F.3d 647, 655 (7th Cir. 2007) (en banc). We review the denial
of counsel for an abuse of discretion, reversing only if there
is a reasonable likelihood that the recruitment of counsel
would have made a difference in the litigation’s outcome.
Id at 659.
The district court found that Robinson made reasonable
efforts to obtain counsel, so we focus on the court’s conclu‐
sion that he is capable of litigating the case pro se. In support
of his requests for counsel, Robinson explained that he has
only an eighth grade education and stays “heavily medicat‐
ed” with psychotropic drugs. He added that he had relied
on assistance from a “jailhouse lawyer” to litigate the case.
The district court acknowledged Robinson’s allegations
about his limited education and medication but concluded
that Robinson was “capable of representing himself” be‐
cause he had “demonstrated an ability” to convey the facts
of his case to the court.
Critically, the district court did not address or conclude
that it disbelieved Robinson’s explanation that another in‐
mate helped him draft the very documents that the court
looked to for evidence of his capacity to litigate. “[T]hat an
inmate receives assistance from a fellow prisoner,” we have
cautioned, “should not factor into the decision whether to
recruit counsel.” Henderson v. Ghosh, 755 F.3d 559, 565 (7th
Cir. 2014); see Dewitt, 760 F.3d at 658. We thus conclude that
the district court abused its discretion by relying only upon
Robinson’s filings as a basis to reject his requests for counsel.
Cf. Davis v. Moroney, 857 F.3d 748, 749, 752 (7th Cir. 2017)
(emphasizing plaintiff’s intellectual disabilities, including his
alleged sixth‐grade reading level, in explaining why court
should have recruited counsel).
We next consider whether Robinson suffered prejudice
from the lack of counsel. See Pruitt, 503 F.3d at 659.
A litigant’s poor performance before trial supports a finding
of prejudice when “there is a reasonable likelihood that the
presence of counsel would have altered the outcome” of the
case. See Santiago v. Walls, 599 F.3d 749, 765 (7th Cir. 2010);
Pruitt, 503 F.3d at 659. Here a lawyer could have helped Rob‐
inson avoid being tripped up by Edwards. The district court
understood Robinson to allege that he was the “victim of an
unprovoked attack” and that any amount of force used
against him was unjustified because he complied with the
defendants’ orders. But the court acknowledged that Robin‐
son could avoid the favorable‐termination requirement and
“potentially prevail on the retaliation claim if he argues that
the force used against him exceeded any force that would
have been necessary to subdue him.” Robinson’s complaint
does indeed suggest that the defendants used excessive force
against him after he was fully subdued, so we think it rea‐
sonably probable that a recruited lawyer could have helped
Robinson amend his complaint to avoid running afoul of
Edwards. See Navejar v. Iyiola, 718 F.3d 692, 697–98 (7th Cir.
Accordingly, we VACATE the district court’s judgment
and REMAND for further proceedings consistent with this
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