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Wallace v. Baldwin

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

July 9, 2018

Maurice L. Wallace, Plaintiff-Appellant,
John Baldwin, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued April 25, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. No. 17-CV-0576 - David R. Herndon, Judge.

          Before Manion, Hamilton, and Barrett, Circuit Judges.

          Hamilton, Circuit Judge.

         Plaintiff Maurice Wallace was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole in 2006. A few months after he entered prison, he assaulted a guard. He has been in solitary confinement (euphemistically called "disciplinary segregation") ever since-for at least eleven years. He is seriously mentally ill. He also poses challenges to both prison officials and federal courts.

          Wallace lodged with the district court a proposed complaint against prison officials and the Illinois Department of Corrections. He alleges that his prolonged isolation exacerbates his mental illness, increases his risk of suicide, and violates his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. He is unable to pay the civil filing fee in advance, so he also filed a motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis under 28 U.S.C. § 1915. The district court ruled that Wallace cannot proceed in forma pauperis because he has received three "strikes" under the Prison Litigation Reform Act for frivolous cases and did not qualify for the statutory exception for a prisoner who is "under imminent danger of serious physical injury." See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g).

         Wallace appeals that denial. He was not allowed to proceed in the district court, and the named defendants have not appeared in either the district court or on appeal. We recruited counsel for Wallace, and they have represented him ably. With better-developed arguments and with the benefit of Sanders v. Melvin, 873 F.3d 957 (7th Cir. 2017), decided after the district court's decision in this case, we conclude that the district court's reasons for denying in forma pauperis status were erroneous. Wallace has alleged sufficiently that he faces imminent danger of serious physical injury. He also has not yet received three "strikes" under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. We vacate the judgment and remand for further proceedings.

         The Prison Litigation Reform Act's "three strikes" provision limiting prisoners' civil lawsuits in federal courts is at the center of this appeal:

In no event shall a prisoner bring a civil action or appeal a judgment in a civil action or proceeding under this section if the prisoner has, on 3 or more prior occasions, while incarcerated or detained in any facility, brought an action or appeal in a court of the United States that was dismissed on the grounds that it is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, unless the prisoner is under imminent danger of serious physical injury.

28 U.S.C. § 1915(g).

         We review de novo a district court's interpretation of the three-strikes provision in § 1915(g). Ciarpaglini v. Saini, 352 F.3d 328, 330 (7th Cir. 2003), citing Evans v. Illinois Dep't of Corrections, 150 F.3d 810, 811 (7th Cir. 1998). On the imminentdanger exception, factual issues are possible. If a district court digs into them and makes findings, our appellate review adapts accordingly. Our account treats as true all wellpleaded allegations in the complaint and views them in the light most favorable to plaintiff. See Arnett v. Webster, 658 F.3d 742, 751 (7th Cir. 2011).

         The core of Wallace's complaint is that solitary confinement has intensified his mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder, causing nightmares, severe anxiety, and most relevant here, suicidal thoughts. He describes his segregation as "akin to being sealed inside a coffin." He spends 23 to 24 hours a day alone in a cell that is "significantly smaller" than 50 square feet. The cell is dark, noisy, infested with insects, freezing in the winter, and hot in the summer. Because of his segregation, he cannot attend educational or religious classes, visit the law library used by the general population, or earn income from a prison job.

          This extreme isolation for more than a decade has taken a toll on Wallace's mental health. He takes antidepressants for post-traumatic stress disorder. But despite this medication he still experiences depression, anxiety, panic attacks, difficulty sleeping, and auditory hallucinations.

         Central to this appeal, Wallace alleges that prolonged segregation has increased his risk of suicide. He has attempted suicide at least five times, including three times during his eleven years in segregation. His last attempt was in late 2016. The details of that attempt are unclear. During a prior attempt Wallace tied a sheet around his neck and "threatened to jump." Taking Wallace's threats ...

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