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Brown v. Peters

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

October 10, 2019

Victor Brown, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Sue Peters, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Submitted August 29, 2019 [*]

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. No. 18-CV-1957 - William E. Duffin, Magistrate Judge.

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

          Wood, Chief Judge.

         In Coleman v. Labor & Industry Review Commission, 860 F.3d 461 (7th Cir. 2017), we held that a magistrate judge does not have the authority to enter a final judgment in a case when only one party-in that case, the plaintiff-has consented to the magistrate judge's jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). That rule holds, we said, even if the magistrate judge is engaged in nothing more than the screening process required for a case brought by a prisoner who wishes to proceed in forma pauperis. See 28 U.S.C. §§ l9l5(e)(2)(B)(ii), 1915A. If the magistrate judge concludes that the case must be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, Fed. R. Qv. P. 12(b)(6), that is a disposition on the merits, and therefore, in the absence of valid consents, the judge is empowered to do no more than submit a report and recommendation to an Article III judge for final resolution. Coleman, 860 F.3d at 475.

         The present appeal presents a new wrinkle for cases at the screening stage: is it possible for the state defendant to consent in advance to the magistrate judge's jurisdiction to conduct the initial case screening and, if the plaintiff has also filed his consent, to enter a final judgment dismissing the case with prejudice? That is exactly what the Wisconsin Department of Justice and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin have attempted to accomplish through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that became effective in 2018, apparently in response to Coleman.

         We reproduce the MOU in its entirety in the Appendix to this opinion. For present purposes, however, it is enough to say that it covers civil cases brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by an incarcerated person, when those cases must undergo initial screening by the district court under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. MOU

         ¶ 2. In the MOU, the state Department of Justice has entered "a limited consent to the exercise of jurisdiction by United States Magistrate Judges" to do a number of things. In paragraph 3(1), the state consents without qualification to the magistrate judge's conduct of the initial screening described by sections 1915A and 1915(a) and (e)(2)(B). That logically includes the authority either to dismiss the case after screening, or to allow it to move forward. Paragraph 3(4) addresses the situation in which the judge may conclude that the case should be dismissed before screening for administrative reasons, such as a failure to pay the filing fee, the failure to submit a proper application to proceed in forma pauperis, or the existence of a filing bar. In those cases, the state consents to involuntary dismissal before the initial screen. Finally, the MOU addresses the situation in which "any part of the case survives initial screening." MOU ¶ 4. At that point, "the appropriate entity within the Department of Justice will be served with the complaint and will be provided the opportunity either to consent to the continued exercise of jurisdiction by the Magistrate Judge who conducted the initial screen or to refuse consent... ."Id. In the case of a refusal, the MOU states that the case will go back for random assignment to a district judge. Id.

         We turn in a moment to the way in which those procedures were applied in this case and whether they are consistent with the Magistrate Judge's Act and the Coleman decision. The MOU applies only to certain types of cases, however, and so we must take a look at the facts before us to ensure that this is one of them.

         Our case arose when Victor Brown, a Wisconsin prisoner housed in the Green Bay Correctional Institution (GBCI), cut himself severely while he was in the restrictive housing unit. He bled all over the floor as a result. Later he notified a correctional officer about his injury. Someone put him in a wheelchair and took him to the health services unit, where an unknown nurse assessed him. The nurse could see from his chart that this was not his first self-inflicted wound. She found that his vital signs were stable and arranged for him to be placed under observation.

         The next day, two more nurses (neither of whose identity Brown knows) assessed Brown again. Initially they found that he was stable, but later that day he told the staff that he was having chest pains and feeling very weak. Nurse Shane ordered him to be taken to a local hospital's emergency room, where he was assessed. The ER personnel determined that he had suffered a blood loss requiring a transfusion of three units of blood (approximately three pints-about a quarter of the total blood supply of an average male adult, He received the necessary transfusion, and for all that this record shows, that was the end of the story-he lodged no further complaints. In time, however, Brown sued the prison nurses, asserting that they had exhibited deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs by not sending him to the ER sooner.

         Following its routine procedures and the MOU, the district court sent the case to Magistrate Judge Duffin for initial screening. On December 28, 2018, Brown consented pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) to the authority of the magistrate judge to resolve the entire case. Magistrate Judge Duffin accordingly noted in his order that "the court has jurisdiction to resolve Brown's motions and to screen his complaint in light of his consent to the full jurisdiction of a magistrate judge and the Wisconsin Department of Justice's limited consent to the exercise of magistrate judge jurisdiction as set forth in the Memorandum of Understanding between the Wisconsin Department of Justice and this court." With those consents secure, the magistrate judge went on to conclude that Brown failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted, because none of his allegations supported a finding that any of the nurses was deliberately indifferent toward his medical needs. The order ends by stating that "[t]his order and the judgment to follow are final. A dissatisfied party may appeal this court's decision to the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit... ."

         Were it not for the MOU, we would be compelled to vacate the magistrate judge's order and remand for proceedings consistent with Coleman. Typically, that would involve the conversion of the final disposition to a report and recommendation from the magistrate judge to a district court judge, and then a final determination by the district court. Those steps are necessary even for named defendants who have never been served. Coleman, 860 F.3d at 475; see also Williams v. King, 875 F.3d 500, 504 (9th Cir. 2017) (agreeing with Coleman).

         Brown named four defendants, two identified by name, and two only by pseudonym. Neither of the named defendants was served with process. But, given the MOU, that is not the end of the story. The two named defendants, Sue Peters (identified elsewhere as a nurse practitioner at GBCI) and Jean Lutsey (the GBCI Health Service Manager, according to the website), both appear to be state employees, and thus within the scope of MOU ¶ 2. If the case were to ...

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