SCOTUS Reinstates Colorado Prisoner’s Suit

William Erickson had nothing to lose when Limon, Colorado prison officials denied him any treatment for a life threatening disease that they were aware that he was suffering from, so he took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  He got very lucky.  The high court took his case and held in an expedited summary ruling that he had the right to have a trial judge hear his request to have medical treatment restored on the merits.Erickson was being treated for a life threatening case of hepatitis C with an injectable drug, when state prison officials in Limon, Colorado terminated his treatment because they believed he had used the syringe to inject an illegal drug. 

A federal court magistrate, federal district court judge and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals all dismissed his case for failing to be sufficiently specific regarding the harm he had suffered in the legal papers he filed without an attorney.  The U.S. Supreme Court held that he was entitled to a fair hearing on his allegations, counterbalancing a recent decision imposing a higher standard on lawyers in other kinds of civil cases.

The fact that the U.S. Supreme Court chose to take Erickson’s case is a near miracle, so far as Erickson is concerned.  Only about 10 out of more than 4,700 petitions from indigent persons are accepted each year by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Moreover, the vast majority of petitions accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court involve either a well developed conflict between U.S. Court of Appeals Circuits on a legal theory, or an unsettled issue of constitutional law.  Cases like this one, where the U.S. Supreme Court grants a case simply to correct an error in the application of facts to the law are rare.

Also unusual was the fact that a summary and hence expedited per curiam decision (i.e. without an identified author on behalf of the court) was issued, despite the fact that Justice Thomas issued a dissent in the case, and Justice Scalia formally stated that he would have denied review in the case.  Cases in which there is a 7-2 division in the court are almost never decided on a summary per curiam basis.

The high court was likely influenced in its decision by the fact that Colorado’s denial of medical treatment in this case amounted to a death sentence for Mr. Erickson, imposed for a marginally proven prison rule infraction.  Also, if he could be denied relief on the doubtful procedural grounds noted in this case, the rule would deny relief in many cases where there was a right to relief on the merits.

While the facts of the case are unique and compelling, the case may also have been decided because it has the potential to impact every case filed in federal court.  This is because it discourages a harsh reading about the standards to be applied in determining the sufficiency of legal filings adopted in the case of Bell Altantic Corp. v. Twombly which has caused a stir in civil procedure circles, as experts try to discern what the fractured and ambigious decision means in practice.

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Andrew Oh-Willeke

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