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Terry v. Mark Spencer

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

April 27, 2018

Damien G. Terry, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Mark Spencer, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Submitted April 12, 2018 [*]

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 17-CV-1079 - Harold A. Baker, Judge.

          Before Flaum, Sykes, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          Sykes, Circuit Judge.

         Damien Terry, an Illinois prisoner proceeding pro se, sued prison officials and corrections administrators under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claiming that they were deliberately indifferent to a painful tumor on his neck and prevented him from timely filing suit on that claim. A district judge screened the case, see 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, held a "merit-review hearing, " see Hughes v. Farris, 809 F.3d 330, 334- 35 (7th Cir. 2015), and dismissed the complaint, ruling that it impermissibly joined two unrelated sets of claims against different defendants. The judge gave Terry 30 days to replead.

         Terry instead moved for reconsideration, citing Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. He explained that his claims were not unrelated and his complaint should not have been dismissed on that ground. The judge denied the motion, observing that Rule 59(e) does not permit reconsideration of a nonfinal order of dismissal. The judge then entered judgment ending the case, and Terry appealed.

         We reverse. The judge misunderstood his discretion to entertain Terry's reconsideration motion. Though Rule 59(e) did not apply, a district judge may reconsider an interlocutory order at any time before final judgment. And the judge should have done so here; reading the complaint generously, Terry's claims are related.

         We also note an anomaly in this record and invoke our supervisory authority to guard against its recurrence. We have upheld the use of so-called merit-review hearings at § 1915A screening, but we've cautioned that this unusual procedure must be strictly limited to "enabling a pro se plaintiff to clarify and amplify his complaint." Id. at 335. We have also explained that a transcript or other recording must be made. Henderson v. Wilcoxen, 802 F.3d 930, 932-33 (7th Cir. 2015). This record contains no transcript or digital recording of the judge's merit-review hearing; indeed, it's unclear from the docket whether it was recorded at all. We now require district judges who use this procedure to docket a transcript or a digital recording of the hearing.

         I. Background

         The complaint alleges two sets of facts, which we accept as true at this stage. See Oakland Police & Fire Ret. Sys. v. Mayer Brown, LLP, 861 F.3d 644, 649 (7th Cir. 2017). Terry claims that officials at two Illinois prisons-the Tamms Correctional Center and the Pontiac Correctional Center-were deliberately indifferent to his requests for treatment of a tennis ball-sized growth on the back of his neck and head. The tumor, which he first noticed in 2006, caused "pain, blurred vision, lack of sleep, and mania." He repeatedly sought treatment for the tumor and in 2012 specifically asked to be referred for surgery to remove it, but his requests were denied or ignored.

         Terry waited until 2017 to file this suit seeking relief for the failure to treat his tumor. The defendants are various prison officials and corrections administrators, including an unnamed Jane Doe. Terry alleges that some of the defendants were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs and others interfered with his right to file suit. Regarding the latter set of claims, Terry alleges that he tried to file suit in December 2015 and March 2016 to redress the failure to treat his tumor but was stymied when prison staff intentionally "lost" his legal mail.

         The judge screened the complaint and scheduled a merit-review hearing. Terry appeared from prison by videoconference. After the hearing the judge dismissed the complaint. As the judge understood the case, Terry was asserting two unrelated sets of claims-one for deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs and one for interference with his right to access the courts. The judge identified three deficiencies in the complaint:

(1) it impermissibly "join[ed] unrelated defendants and unrelated claims into a single complaint";
(2) the two-year statute of limitations for § 1983 claims in Illinois barred the deliberate-indifference claims against some of the defendants, see ...

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