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Evans v. Griffin

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

August 7, 2019

John Evans, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Susan Griffin, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued February 4, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 16-3093-HAB - Harold A. Baker, Judge.

          Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Easterbrook and St. Eve, Circuit Judges.

          WOOD, CHIEF JUDGE.

         John Evans is a state prisoner and, unquestionably, not a healthy man. His most recent malady is the subject of this lawsuit. Evans alleges that he developed nasal polyps and that the prison medical staff refused to authorize surgery-the only effective remedy-for him. Frustrated within the prison, he brought this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging a violation of his Eighth Amendment rights. The district court never reached the merits of that claim, however, because it dismissed Evans's case with prejudice as a discovery sanction. Dr. Francis Kayira, one of the defendants, attempted to depose Evans. Kayira noticed the deposition by mail on Thursday, February 16, 2017, for the next Tuesday, February 21. Evans swears that he did not receive that notice until February 22, the day after the designated time. When, on the 21st, he was brought out from his cell to meet with the defendants' lawyers, he says that he had no idea why they were there. Further, he was feeling ill and could not (and would not) sit for the deposition. Evans refused to be sworn or to answer any questions.

         Thwarted in his discovery effort, Kayira moved for sanctions, seeking either reimbursement for the costs of the failed deposition or dismissal with prejudice. The district court granted the latter sanction, citing Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 37(b) and 37(d) and finding that a sanction of costs would be fruitless because Evans is an indigent prisoner. Although dismissal is indeed sometimes the proper sanction for a discovery violation, we conclude that the district court jumped too quickly in that direction. We therefore reverse and remand for further proceedings.


         On April 6, 2016, Evans filed a civil rights complaint alleging that Susan Griffin and Dr. Francis Kayira, both medical providers at Illinois's Graham Correctional Center, exhibited deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs, in violation of the Eighth Amendment (as applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment). Evans alleged that, in addition to his various other medical issues-which included high blood pressure, HIV, and kidney problems necessitating dialysis-he had developed nasal polyps. While Griffin and Kayira had prescribed medication for his nasal polyps, that medication had neither reduced the polyps nor relieved his symptoms. This, Evans alleges, is unsurprising because outside physicians had stated that surgery was the only way to cure his condition. Kayira and Griffin, however, refused to allow Evans to see an outside specialist for treatment or surgery.

         For approximately a year, discovery proceeded as scheduled, and the record suggests that the parties had few, if any, discovery disputes. In its case management order, the district court had granted the defendants "leave to depose the plaintiff at his place of confinement," as Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 30(a)(2)(B) requires for depositions of incarcerated persons. Shortly before the close of discovery, Kayira attempted to take advantage of this opportunity.

         On Thursday, February 16, 2017, Kayira mailed a notice to Evans, informing him that his deposition was scheduled for the morning of Tuesday, February 21, 2017, at Graham prison, where Evans was incarcerated. But on Tuesday morning, when guards brought Evans to Graham's videoconferencing room for the deposition, he expressed confusion about what was happening. In both on and off-the-record conversations with defendants' counsel, Evans stated that he did not know why he was in the room with defendants' counsel. Told he was there for his deposition, Evans protested that he did not wish to proceed for multiple reasons, including because he did not feel well. He also made several on-the-record statements suggesting that he never received Kayira's notice. He said, for example, that "[i]f you hire [a court reporter], send me a notice and let me know you're going to be here. Don't just run up on me to this and this and this and that." He added that "I wish you had sent me something through the mail letting me know that you [were] going to have another deposition."

         Kayira's counsel pushed back, stating that in his estimation, Evans appeared physically and mentally able to proceed, and that he had offered to take additional breaks and to allow Evans to review copies of the documents he had brought along as needed. Kayira's counsel also volunteered that he "get[s] the same kind of playbook from inmates a lot"-meaning that in his experience they often manufactured reasons not to go forward with a deposition.

         With the deposition ended before it could begin, Kayira filed a motion for sanctions under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 37(b) and 37(d), seeking either the costs of the deposition or dismissal of Evans's claims with prejudice. Evans responded with a sworn statement explaining that he had been in segregation since February 4 and did not receive the notice of deposition until the guards passed out mail to the segregated prisoners at 6:30 p.m. on February 22, 2017, the day after the attempted deposition. He reiterated that as a result of the prison's mail-distribution policy he "had no idea" that the deposition was going to occur until he was brought to the videoconferencing room. The district court granted Kayira's motion for sanctions, relying on Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(b), which governs failure to obey an order to provide or permit discovery, and Rule 37(d), which concerns failing to appear for a deposition.


         We review a district court's decision to grant sanctions, as well as the choice of which sanctions to impose, for an abuse of discretion. Pendell v. City of Peoria, 799 F.3d 916, 917 (7th Cir. 2015). "A lower court 'abuses its discretion when it commits an error of law or makes a clearly erroneous finding of fact.'" In re Veluchamy,879 F.3d 808, 823 ...

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