Correctional Healthcare Defense Attorneys Win Big Federal Ruling

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After Plaintiff in Correctional Healthcare Case Strikes Out for Not Amending His Vague, Overlong Complaint, a Federal Appellate Court Says Dismissal with Prejudice is Appropriate

A recent ruling in a 42 U.S.C. 1983 civil lawsuit makes a strong statement on what happens if a plaintiff doesn’t abide by federal instructions for putting forth a complaint.

When a federal court told an inmate that his 42 U.S.C. 1983 complaint was too long and his allegations were unclear, the inmate was given two chances to amend it. Instead, he did not provide any of the clarity needed for the defendants to answer and, on his third attempt, actually made the complaint longer.

As a result, the district court ruled — and the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed — that not only is the inmate’s case dismissed, he also cannot file another lawsuit based on the same grounds. Further, because the 6th Circuit opinion is a published one, the 6th Circuit will look to this decision in gauging the standard for future cases.

The case is Kensu v. Corizon, Inc., No. 21-1083 (6th Cir., July 20, 2021). Jonathan Lanesky, a civil litigation senior attorney at Chapman Law Group, represented the correctional healthcare contractor defendant Corizon.

Plaintiff’s Pleadings Contained ‘Morass of Irrelevancies’

This case is one of several that Plaintiff filed against the Michigan Department of Corrections, Corizon, and individual employees on claims of inadequate medical care and deliberate indifference. The lower court determined that the initial complaint at hand — which spanned 180 pages and contained more than 800 numbered allegations plus additional sub-allegations — “repeat[ed] many of the same allegations asserted in” one of Plaintiff’s other cases, making it “difficult to discern what conduct” was “unnecessary background and what conduct [was] being alleged.”

The court dismissed the complaint under Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (General Rules of Pleading), which notes that a pleading must contain, “among other things, ‘a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,’” and that “[e]ach allegation must be simple, concise, and direct.” Still, the judge allowed Plaintiff to amend and refile it.

When Plaintiff presented the complaint a second time, the court still found fault with it:

    • It contained “an unnecessarily lengthy recitation of [Plaintiff’s] past medical conditions and treatment while an MDOC prisoner,” and it lacked “sufficient detail concerning the factual allegations on which the claims against many of the … defendants [were] based.”
    • Plaintiff “‘failed to identify when much of the alleged misconduct occurred,’ making it impossible for the district court or ‘opposing counsel to discern which factual allegations [were] asserted to provide context,’ ‘which [were] asserted to support his current claims, and which [were] legally insignificant.’”
    • Because the complaint repeatedly used the generic reference “Defendants,” there was no clarity as to “which named defendants were involved in each allegation, ‘even where it [was] clear that not all of them could have been involved.’”

In addition, defendants contended that although the complaint’s page count decreased by 76 pages, this was mostly due to cosmetic changes, such as reduced margins, and not a shorter pleading.

The district court gave Plaintiff a third and final chance to make his case. However:

“[H]is page count and allegation count both went up: to 108, from 104, and 579, from 542, respectively. … He also attempted to wall off his claims here from those in his other cases by purporting to restrict his allegations to conduct after June 30, 2017, or to conduct relating to medical conditions diagnosed after June 30, 2017. (Thus, his complaint still alleges conduct from before July 2017.) … [Defendants] would have still ‘ha[d] to expend enormous effort digging through “a morass of irrelevancies” to identify “the few allegations that matter.”’”

Because Plaintiff was asked three times to follow Rule 8 but did not comply, the district court dismissed the case with prejudice.

In affirming the district court’s ruling, the 6th Circuit noted that, per Rule 8:

“A plaintiff must … plead enough facts to ‘allow[] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.’

“We have not had much occasion to interpret Rule 8 in the posture now presented. This is a dismissal not for failure to plead facts that, if true, make the defendant’s liability at least plausible. Rather, it is for [Plaintiff’s] repeated failure to plead claims and allegations with clarity, because of which the defendants lacked ‘fair notice’ of his claims and ‘the grounds upon which they rest.’ … We therefore publish this opinion to set precedent for any future cases in this vein.”

‘A District Court Need Not Have Infinite Patience’

In determining whether the district court abused its discretion by dismissing Plaintiff’s complaint with prejudice as a sanction, the 6th Circuit noted that the appropriate remedy for a complaint that violates Rule 8 “is rarely immediate dismissal.”

The district court can simply “‘relieve a defendant of the burden of responding to a complaint with excessive factual detail’ by ‘simply strik[ing] the surplusage’ … or excusing the defendant from answering certain allegations. … Or, in line with our cases, the district court could dismiss without prejudice and with leave to amend, as happened here.” Yet:

“A district court need not have infinite patience. Persistent or vexatious refusal to follow the rules may warrant dismissal with prejudice. ... So if a district court has offered multiple opportunities to fix the complaint and the plaintiff has persisted in noncompliance, then the harsh sanction of dismissal is appropriate. … All the more if the district court warns the plaintiff that a failure to comply will result in dismissal.”

Chapman Law Group: Your Partners in National Correctional Healthcare Facility Defense

At Chapman Law Group, our civil litigation defense lawyers are committed to defending deliberate indifference claims for national private correctional providers. We serve as Michigan’s leading jail/prison and civil defense law firm, and we work with municipalities, local governments, insurance carriers, and third-party claims administrators on cases alleging:

Our four national healthcare defense law offices are in Miami and Sarasota, FloridaDetroit, Michigan; and Los Angeles/Southern California. Contact us today to learn more about our law services.

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Jonathan Lanesky

Senior Attorney

Civil Litigation and Correctional Facilities

Michigan Office
1441 W. Long Lake Road, Suite 310
Troy, MI 48098
Phone: (248) 644-6326

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