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Dobbey v. Mitchell-Lawshea

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

November 24, 2015

LESTER DOBBEY, Plaintiff-Appellant,

 Submitted October 29, 2015

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 12 C 1739 -- Robert M. Dow, Jr., Judge.

Lester Dobbey, Plaintiff - Appellant, Pro se, Joliet, IL.

For JACQUELINE MITCHELL-LAWSHEA, Doctor, Michael Dangerfield, Defendants - Appellees: Linda Boachie-Ansah, Attorney, Office of The Attorney General, Civil Appeals Division, Chicago, IL; Clifford Berlow, Attorney, Jenner & Block LLP, Chicago, IL.

Before WOOD, Chief Judge, and POSNER and EASTERBROOK, Circuit Judges.


Page 939

Posner, Circuit Judge.

On January 7, 2011, Lester Dobbey, an inmate of Illinois's Stateville prison, complained to a medical technician that he had a loose tooth that was causing him severe pain and required immediate medical attention. He filled out an emergency request for treatment and the technician wrote " abscess" on a form that referred him to the prison infirmary for treatment. Jacqueline Mitchell-Lawshea, a dentist who is one of the two defendants in Dobbey's suit, was on duty that day but claims not to have received the form, or otherwise to have learned of Dobbey's complaint, until January 12, when she wrote " reports abscess" on Dobbey's medical chart and scheduled him to be examined by her two days later. Although the defendants' statement of uncontested facts says that she " was not responsible for logging or scheduling appointments of offenders," her affidavit states: " I logged and/or scheduled offender's appointments." And in response to the plaintiff's statement of facts she admitted that she'd scheduled Dobbey's January 14 appointment.

Dobbey showed up on schedule on January 14 only to be told by a guard--the other defendant, Michael Danger-field--that the appointment had been cancelled; no reason was given. Dobbey told the guard that he was in pain, showed him his infected tooth, and asked to be allowed to remain in the infirmary's waiting area until someone appeared who could prescribe pain medication for him. Dangerfield told Dobbey that he could not linger in the waiting area and anyway that guards had arrived to take him back to his prison cell.

One might have expected Mitchell-Lawshea, who as a dentist was surely aware of the dangers created by an untreated tooth abscess, to have kept her appointment with Dobbey or at least have seen him the next day. She has given no explanation for her apparent dawdling--and we know that at least four people, including her, were working in Stateville's dental office on January 14. Instead of seeing him or asking one of the other members of the dental office staff to see him, she rescheduled his appointment for January 25--eleven days later. On January 20, with his abscessed tooth still untreated even by pain medication, Dobbey was taken from his cell to the prison infirmary complaining of stomach pains, vomiting, and fever. He was released in time for his dental appointment but the appointment was again postponed, till the 28th, because Dobbey's cell had been changed. Why that should have affected his dental appointment is another unexplained feature of this case. On January 28 he was at last examined by Mitchell-Lawshea--16 days after she'd learned

Page 940

he was complaining of a tooth abscess. She diagnosed an abscessed molar and prescribed penicillin and on February 3, the penicillin having brought the infection under control, she extracted the molar.

Dobbey's suit charges the defendants with deliberate in-difference to his abscess. " Deliberate indifference" to a prisoner's serious medical needs is held to be a violation of the cruel and unusual punishments clause of the Eighth Amendment, a clause made applicable to state officials and employees by interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 101, 104, 97 S.Ct. 285, 50 L.Ed.2d 251 (1976). The decision of a medical professional to do nothing, even though she knows that a patient has a serious medical condition requiring prompt treatment that the professional is capable of and responsible for providing, amounts to deliberate indifference. Any minimally competent dentist who knows that a patient has reported an abscess also knows that if the report is correct the patient needs prompt medical treatment. A dentist demonstrates deliberate indifference by failing to treat the patient promptly, thus prolonging the patient's pain, while knowing that the patient may well be in serious pain that is treatable. And a guard who is aware of complaints of pain and does nothing to help a suffering prisoner obtain treatment is likewise exhibiting deliberate indifference. He knows the prisoner may be suffering and knows whom to call to attend to the matter. His failure to do so cannot be excused on grounds of cost or danger of acting, see, e.g., Johnson v. Doughty, 433 F.3d 1001, 1011-13 (7th Cir. 2006); Berry v. Peterman, 604 F.3d 435, 440-41 (7th Cir. 2010), as there is neither cost nor danger.

In granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants, the district judge failed to appreciate the gravity of a tooth abscess or attach sufficient weight to the slack response of prison staff to Dobbey's medical problem. A tooth abscess is not a simple toothache. It is a bacterial infection of the root of the tooth, and it can spread to the adjacent gum and beyond--way beyond. It is often painful and can be dangerous. Loss of the tooth is common, though can sometimes be prevented by prompt detection and treatment of the abscess. Dobbey does not connect his abdominal woes to the abscess, but he may well ...

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