Submitted October 18, 2017 [*]
from the United States District Court for the Central
District of Illinois. No. 13-1282 - James E. Shadid, Judge.
Flaum, Ripple, and Rovner, Circuit Judges.
ROVNER, Circuit Judge.
Robinson, an inmate in Illinois, alleged in this action under
42 U.S.C. § 1983 that five guards at Pontiac
Correctional Center beat him in 2011 as punishment for filing
grievances. The district court initially 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 because 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
to Robinson's complaint, the guards were escorting 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 epithets.
denies that he resisted the guards, but a disciplinary
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 revoked and sentenced him to a year of
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
appeal). 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
Edwards 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.
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 recruitment 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.
district court found that Robinson made reasonable efforts to
obtain counsel, so we focus on the court's conclusion
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
medicated" 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" because he had "demonstrated
an ability" to convey the facts of his case to the
the district court did not address or conclude that it
disbelieved Robinson's explanation that another inmate
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
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 Robinson 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 Robinson 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
reasonably 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. 2013).
we VACATE the district court's judgment and REMAND for