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Shelton v. Madigan

October 24, 2006

LINDA LORINCZ SHELTON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
LISA MADIGAN, ILLINOIS ATTORNEY GENERAL, ET AL., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Joan B. Gottschall

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Before the court is Plaintiff Linda Lorincz Shelton's Motion to Vacate, Motion for Leave to File a Second Amended Complaint, and Motion to Lift Stay. For the following reasons, the motion to vacate is denied, the motion for leave to file the second amended complaint is denied as moot, and the motion to lift stay is denied as moot.

I. BACKGROUND

On May 6, 2004, plaintiff Dr. Linda Lorincz Shelton filed a complaint in federal court alleging various civil rights abuses against numerous State of Illinois officials and public servants. The alleged causes of action are related to some criminal actions in which Dr. Shelton is a defendant and arose when she attempted to serve papers on the Illinois Attorney General's office. She became involved in an argument with a state employee, which led to more altercations with other state employees, culminating in her arrest. Although Dr. Shelton was incarcerated for a matter of hours, she claims that during that time, she was injured and denied necessary medical attention. She is seeking actual and punitive damages against the named defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. §1983, §1985, and §1986.

On December 8, 2004, Dr. Shelton failed to appear for a status hearing before this court. This court continued the status hearing to January 19, 2005, and stated in its minute order that "plaintiff and/or by counsel*fn1 is required to appear at scheduled status hearings. Failure to appear on [January 19] will result in a dismissal of this case for want of prosecution." Minute Order (Dec. 8, 2004). Dr. Shelton appeared at the January 19, 2005 hearing and the case proceeded.

On June 29, 2005, this court held another status hearing at which Dr. Shelton presented a series of motions. This court granted her motion to stay this case pending the resolution of the state court criminal cases giving rise to this case*fn2 and continued the status hearing to December 14, 2005. However, Dr. Shelton failed to appear for this status hearing. She did not provide the court with any advance notice, seek to reschedule, or even notify the court afterward as to why she failed to appear. The court continued the status hearing to February 2, 2006, once again warning Dr. Shelton in its minute order that failure to appear would result in dismissal of her case for want of prosecution. Minute Order (Dec. 14, 2005). Dr. Shelton failed to appear on February 2, 2006, again with no advance notice or explanation, and the court accordingly dismissed her complaint for want of prosecution, entering judgment for the defendants. Minute Order (Feb. 2, 2006). Dr. Shelton was notified of the dismissal and entry of judgment by mail that same day.

It was not until April 3, 2006 that Dr. Shelton filed her combined motion seeking to vacate the court's dismissal of her case pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(1)*fn3 in which she explained why she was absent from the two hearings. According to her motion, Dr. Shelton appeared in state court for a hearing on December 14, 2004, where she was arrested on an outstanding warrant.*fn4 She was held "incommunicado" in the Cook County Jail Cermak Health Services acute psychiatry tier from December 14 through December 30, 2005. Plaintiff's Motion to Vacate ¶¶ 22-30. She was released from December 30, 2005 through January 6, 2006. On January 6, 2006, she was arrested during another court appearance.*fn5 Immediately after her arrest, she collapsed and was taken to St. Anthony's Hospital for four days. She served the remainder of her sentence at the Cook County Jail. Id. at ¶ 31. She was released on January 20, 2006, whereupon she went directly to the hospital. There she was treated for "significant dehydration and presyncope, borderline renal failure, untreated chest pain and inability to stand," was given IV infusions, stabilized, put under observation, and then was discharged later that day.

Id. at ¶36. Once home, Dr. Shelton was so debilitated by her experiences that she was unable to take care of any business matters until early February. Affidavit of Thomas Shelton at ¶13. These circumstances, Dr. Shelton claims, diminished her health to the extent that she was unable to learn of or attend the scheduled hearing. She asks this court to vacate its dismissal, permit her additional time to file an amended complaint, and lift the stay in this matter.*fn6

At this point, the court notes that although Dr. Shelton may have had severe health problems while incarcerated, she was nevertheless able to write two Emergency Motions to the Illinois Appellate Court, id. at ¶26 and at ¶32, arrange for the motions to be delivered, id., and attend a state court proceeding on January 6, 2006. Id. at ¶30. In other words, while Dr. Shelton's symptoms may have been severe during that period, they were not incapacitating.

Once the court received Dr. Shelton's motion to vacate, it scheduled a status hearing. At the hearing on April 13, 2006, it set a briefing schedule and ordered Dr. Shelton to supplement her motion with affidavits and medical records supporting her explanation for her failure to appear. On May 15, 2005, Dr. Shelton submitted her Supplement to Motion to Vacate, which consisted of the affidavit of her son, Thomas Shelton, and medical documents printed on February 14, 2006 summarizing her condition as of January 20 or 21, 2006. In his affidavit, Thomas Shelton attests that he saved his mother's mail, but did not read it, during her incarceration, and that he might have misplaced the court's December 14 order. Affidavit of Thomas Shelton at ¶12. The medical records are not submitted with any physicians' affidavits and do not appear to support Dr. Shelton's claim that she was physically incapacitated on or before February 2, 2006.

In response to Dr. Shelton's motion and supplemental evidence, the defendants argue that Dr. Shelton failed to file a motion to alter or amend the court's judgment within ten days under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e), and did not appeal this court's entry of judgment, and that this Rule 60 motion is an improper substitute for an appeal. They further object to the nature of Dr. Shelton's evidence in support of her motion, arguing that Thomas Shelton's affidavit and the unauthenticated medical records are insufficient to justify the type of "extraordinary relief" available under Rule 60(b)(1). Finally, the defendants argue that the circumstances Dr. Shelton has alleged do not satisfy the high burden needed to prevail on a Rule 60(b)(1) motion.

II. DISCUSSION

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(1) permits the court to "relieve a party or a party's legal representative from a final judgment, order, or proceeding for ... mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect ... or [for] any other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment." When seeking to vacate a default judgment under this rule, the moving party has to demonstrate: (1) that she had good cause for the default; (2) that she took quick action to correct the default; and (3) that she has a meritorious defense to the original claim. Jones v. Phipps, 39 F.3d 158 (7th Cir. 1994).

Demonstrating good cause or excusable neglect to satisfy the first prong of the test is not an easy task. Excusable neglect occurs only where there are "exceptional circumstances [that] demonstrate that the events contributing to a default judgment were not within the meaningful control of the defaulting party... [W]here a party willfully, albeit through ignorance or carelessness, abdicates its responsibilities, relief from judgment under Rule 60(b) is not warranted." Zuelzke Tool & Engineering Co. v. Anderson Die Castings, Inc., 925 F.2d 226 (7th Cir. 1991). Simply being an incarcerated pro se litigant does not necessarily constitute "good cause." Jones v. Phipps at 163. Hospitalization for a drug treatment program ...


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