People For the American Way Foundation

Biden Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Reverse Lower Court and Let Class Action Against Cook County Jail Go Forward

Biden Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Reverse Lower Court and Let Class Action Against Cook County Jail Go Forward

Judge Candace Jackson-Akiwumi cast the deciding vote to overturn a lower court and allow a class action against Cook County jail to go forward, seeking damages for constitutionally inadequate dental care. Both the dissenting judge and the lower court judge were nominated by Donald Trump. The April 2024 decision was in Scott v Dart.

 

What is the background of this case?

 Quentin Scott was detained before trial at Cook County jail, “one of the nation’s largest” single-site jails that houses approximately 9500 people., in 2013-4. Until 2007, its staff included an oral surgeon, who handled “difficult extractions” and other complex dental cases. But starting in 2007 and lasting for more than a decade, the jail refused to have an oral surgeon on staff, despite repeated urgent requests. Residents who needed such care were referred to a nearby hospital, which often took months.

While at the jail in 2013, Scott began to suffer from “severe tooth pain.” He submitted medical requests explaining that he had difficulty eating, that his tooth “throbbed all night long” and it “hurts like hell.” A dentist examined him and recommended referral for oral surgery, but nothing was done for three months. He then submitted several grievances, complaining of “unbearable” pain and inability to “lie down” or “eat properly.” Finally, seven months after a dentist referred him for treatment by an oral surgeon, Scott “received the treatment he needed.”

On behalf of himself and other detainees, Scott filed a class action for damages against the jail for the pain and suffering that he and others experienced. Scott presented evidence showing that officials “were aware of the need” for an onsite oral surgeon but “turned a blind eye to the suffering” of people detained there. For example, a 2011 request by the jail’s chief of dental services stated that such a surgeon was needed to “address the ‘constant suffering’ of detainees.”

Scott also submitted copies of grievances of 11 other detainees who experienced such problems. For example, one person reported that he was in so much pain that he “can’t drink anything cold,” was having trouble sleeping, and did not have “enough pain medicine,” but that the referral for oral surgery would take “4-6 months.”

After discovery, Scott sought to certify a class action of detainees needing oral surgery from 2013-2020, which it was estimated would include 2000 to 4200 members. The district judge, Trump nominee Martha Pacold, refused. Scott then accepted a conditional offer of settlement on his individual claim but reserved the right to appeal the class action ruling and to seek an ‘incentive award” for his continuing work as class representative. He then appealed to the Seventh Circuit.

 

How did Judge Jackson-Akiwumi and the Seventh Circuit Rule and Why is it Important?

Judge Jackson-Akiwumi cast the deciding vote in a 2-1 decision that vacated the lower court ruling and sent the case back so that the class action against Cook County jail can proceed. Judge Diane Wood wrote the majority opinion, which explained that based on the record in the case and established precedent, Scott had standing to proceed because of the costs and work he is now doing and will incur as class representative and the “incentive award” he would receive if the case succeeds. Wood joined three other circuits in specifically rejecting the County’s argument, based on an Eleventh Circuit case, that incentive awards should not be allowed.

Judge Wood went on to rule that the lower court had erred in denying class certification. She carefully reviewed the district court’s findings on all the accepted criteria for class certification, particularly including the requirement of “common questions” of law or fact affecting the class. She explained that the requirement was met here because all the class members’ claims “arise from the same course of conduct by the same defendant”––the County’s “decade-long refusal to have an oral surgeon on staff at the Jail.” She specifically rejected the argument, adopted by the court below and Trump judge Thomas Kirsch in dissent, that the commonality requirement was not met because of a previous Seventh Circuit decision involving dental care at Cook County jail. In the previous case, she went on, “there was no uniform policy being challenged;” instead, the case involved “individualized claims of inadequate medical care” that required examination of “facts unique to each plaintiff” to resolve. In contrast, she wrote, the “jail’s decision not to put an oral surgeon on staff is a uniform policy that applies to every detainee,” and the commonality requirement was clearly met.

The majority decision made possible by Judge Jackson-Akiwumi’s deciding vote was obviously important to Quentin Scott and the thousands of other individuals who were harmed by the jail’s policy and seek justice. The ruling also establishes and reinforces precedent concerning review of claims concerning inadequate medical care by and class actions against government institutions. This is particularly so in the Seventh Circuit, which includes Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.  In addition, the ruling serves as a reminder of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded judges like Judge Jackson-Akiwumi to our federal courts.