Flora v. Cook County Jail et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER signed by the Honorable Matthew F. Kennelly on 9/19/2017: As described in the accompanying Memorandum Opinion and Order, the Court cannot at this point make any definitive rulings regarding the recoverability of emotiona l distress damages in this case or regarding whether the issue of the threshold for recoverability of such damages under the PLRA is an issue for the Court or for the jury. As discussed in the opinion, the parties are directed to submit supplemental memoranda on the latter point by 9/27/2017. The ruling set for 9/21/2017 at 9:30 AM is converted to a status hearing on that same date at 8:30 AM, in chambers (Room 2188). (mk)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ILLINOIS
THOMAS DART, Sheriff of Cook
County, and COOK COUNTY,
Case No. 15 C 1127
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
MATTHEW F. KENNELLY, District Judge:
The plaintiff in this case, Donnell Flora, is a paraplegic who is confined to a
wheelchair. He is unable to care for himself without assistance. For example, he is
able to use a toilet independently only if he is provided with a raised toilet with grab
bars. He also needs significant accommodations in order to use a shower. He has
sued the Sheriff of Cook County and the County under Title II of the Americans with
Disabilities Act (ADA), alleging that his rights under the ADA were violated when he was
incarcerated as a pretrial detainee at the Cook County Jail and when he was
transported to the Leighton Courthouse for hearings on his criminal case. The Court
entered summary judgment in Flora's favor as to liability on some aspects of his claim.
See Flora v. Dart, No. 15 C 1127, 2017 WL 2152392 (N.D. Ill. May 17, 2017). What
remains for trial is the issue of liability on the remainder of his claim, and the issue of
damages. The case is set for trial on October 12, 2017.
At a recent status hearing, defendants took the position that the Prison Litigation
Reform Act (PLRA) prohibits Flora from recovering damages for emotional distress.
The Court understood defendants to be seeking to bar evidence of emotional distress
damages and directed them to file an appropriate motion. Defendants' filing, however,
was not what the Court expected; they do not ask the Court to preclude anything. As
will become apparent, both defendants' submission and Flora's response are insufficient
to permit the Court to rule definitively on anything at this point.
Under the PLRA, "[n]o Federal civil action may be brought by a prisoner confined
in a jail, prison, or other correctional facility, for mental or emotional injury suffered while
in custody without a prior showing of physical injury or the commission of a sexual act
(as defined in section 2246 of Title 18)." 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e). Though there is no
definitive authority from the Seventh Circuit, but see Staggs v. Hollenbeck, 249 F.3d
1159, 2000 WL 1763357, at *5 (7th Cir. 2000) (unpublished), other circuits have ruled
that the statute requires "less-than-significant-but-more-than-de minimis" physical injury
in order to permit recovery of emotional distress damages. See, e.g., Mitchell v. Horn,
318 F.3d 523, 536 (3d Cir. 2003).
At the aforementioned status hearing, defendants seemed to be contending that
Flora cannot meet this threshold. But their subsequent filing does not seek a pretrial
ruling barring emotional distress damages. Rather, defendants contend only that the
issue of whether Flora clears the de minimis threshold should be submitted to the jury at
trial. Flora argues that it is an issue for the Court to decide either before or during trial.
Neither side has done much of a job briefing the issue of who decides the point.
Defendants argue only that the issue is a question of fact, evidently assuming that if it
is, then the issue is one for the jury. This is a non sequitur, as illustrated by another
provision of the PLRA, the exhaustion requirement found in 42 U.S.C. §1997e(a).
Exhaustion frequently involves factual questions, but its determination is indisputably an
issue for the Court. Defendants offer no authority one way or another regarding
whether the de minimis threshold is an issue for the jury. 1
Nor does Flora. He seems to contend that the matter is not legitimately disputed.
Specifically, he contends that because he has testified that he fell in the shower while
attempting to transfer to a portable shower chair and was then treated by a doctor, the
physical injury requirement of section 1997e(e) has been established. But Flora did not
seek summary judgment on this point, and the Court is not prepared to say that the
matter is beyond dispute. (The Court does note, however, that if it is in fact
undisputed—or if it is demonstrated—that Flora fell and required treatment by a
physician, that likely will be enough to clear the "less-than-significant-but-more-than-de
minimis" threshold.) On the court-vs.-jury issue, Flora, like defendants, offers no
authority establishing that the issue of whether the threshold is met, even if disputed, is
for the Court to decide, not the jury.
The Court would prefer not to strike out on its own to decide this issue. The
parties are directed to submit, by no later than 9/27/2017, supplemental memoranda of
not more than 8 pages focused on the court-vs.-jury issue. If there is no authority
directly on point, the parties should consider, among other things, appropriate
analogies, as well as, of course, the effect of the Seventh Amendment (if any).
One final point. The law is clear that even if Flora ultimately cannot recover
Defendants suggest that Flora's own testimony cannot suffice to establish the
necessary threshold under section 1997e(e) because it is "self-serving," but that
argument is frivolous.
emotional distress damages, the PLRA permits him to seek and recover nominal and
punitive damages, Washington v. Hively, 695 F.3d 641, 644 (7th Cir. 2012), as well as
an injunction if appropriate. Thomas v. State of Illinois, 697 F.3d 612, 614 (7th Cir.
2012). Defendants have offered no authority supporting the proposition that nominal
damages are unavailable under the ADA. Under the PLRA, the amount of damages
awarded may impact any award of attorney's fees, see 42 U.S.C. § 1997d, but that is an
issue for another day.
The ruling date of 9/21/2017 is vacated and is converted to a status hearing on
that same date at 8:30 a.m., in chambers (Room 2188), so that the Court can discuss
with the parties issues regarding accommodations for Flora during the trial.
Date: September 19, 2017
MATTHEW F. KENNELLY
United States District Judge
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?