7th Circuit reverses summary judgment in prison attack lawsuit


Marilyn Odendahl for www.theindianalawyer.com

Repeatedly drawing attention to the heavily redacted record and scant information about procedures, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out a summary judgment granted to the government in a lawsuit stemming from a prison yard attack.

Charles Keller, an inmate at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, filed suit against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act after he was brutally beaten and left lying unconscious in the prison yard.

He claimed several prison employees violated mandatory regulations and orders which allowed the attack to occur. In particular, he said the intake psychologist did not examine all of his medical documents, as required by applicable regulations, before placing him in general population. According to Keller, the guards in the watchtower failed to monitor their assigned areas of the yard because, he contended, they were lazy or inattentive in violation of their post orders.

The government argued it was shielded from liability by the discretionary function exception under the Federal Tort Claims Act. It maintained all prisoner attacks fall within the exception.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana agreed and granted summary judgment to the government. However, in Charles Keller v. United States of America, 13-3113, the 7th Circuit reversed, saying the government failed to offer evidence showing its conduct was shielded by the exception.

If prison personnel acted according to policy, then the discretionary function exception applied. However, the 7th Circuit said it was unable to determine whether the employees adhered to mandatory regulation because the documents were incomplete.

The Circuit Court said the extensive redactions and scant record made it impossible to ascertain exactly what regulations and procedures applied to the intake psychologist and the prison guards. The 7th Circuit noted the District Court did not have the unredacted documents when it ruled on the government’s summary judgment motion.

“The district court’s resolution of the discovery disputes in this case resulted in a record so limited that it could not support summary judgment for the government,” Judge David Hamilton wrote for the court. “A better-developed record would have allowed the district court and this court to assess better the merits of the government’s motion for summary judgment.”