School of Law students Shana Tomenes and Samantha Hoefs.

Appellate Clinic Students Argue to U.S. Court of Appeals

Third-year students in the University of St. Thomas School of Law Appellate Clinic argued a prisoner medical neglect constitutional tort case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Pasadena, California, on March 4.

The case, Foy Chandler v. R. Phillip Guttierrez, et al., was argued by students Shana Tomenes and Samantha Hoefs, who worked on behalf of the school’s Appellate Clinic led by Professor Gregory Sisk, Laghi Distinguished Chair in Law. The appellate team began working on the case in summer 2018, writing an answering brief and then preparing for oral argument. The video of the oral argument is available here.

Foy Chandler, a federal prisoner, suffered agonizing back pain, leaving him confined to his bunk and unable to move from his cell. But, Chandler contends, he was left without medical treatment or even food for days at a time. Despite urgent requests by Chandler, his cell-mate, and correctional officers for a medical response, medical professionals at the Federal Correctional Institution in California treated him as a nuisance rather than a patient. Chandler presented evidence that medical professionals on multiple occasions refused to respond for hours and even days to his emergency situation, falsely accused him of malingering and drug abuse despite clean drug screens, and blocked an MRI for diagnosis that was prescribed by another physician. Only after Chandler was released and received emergency medical care was he diagnosed as suffering from a severe bone infection that was destroying his spine and that has left him with permanent pain and disabilities.

Chandler, acting pro se, brought claims in the U.S. District Court in California alleging both medical malpractice and deliberate indifference to a serious medical need in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. After the trial court rejected the government’s motion to dismiss the claims, the defendant federal officers filed an immediate appeal, preventing the case from going to trial.

On appeal, the University of St. Thomas Appellate Clinic contended that the U.S. Court of Appeals did not have proper jurisdiction because the appeal was premature before final judgment with a trial in the District Court. The Court of Appeals does have “interlocutory” jurisdiction to hear legal arguments that the conduct of the federal officers was not clearly in violation of Chandler’s constitutional rights. But, the Appellate Clinic contended in its brief and at oral argument, the federal officers instead were trying to challenge the factual basis for Chandler’s claims, which is not permitted at this stage of the proceedings.

At the oral argument, the three judges asked numerous questions about jurisdiction, whether the federal officers were trying to re-argue the facts rather than only the law, and whether there was some evidence to support Chandler’s claims of deliberate indifference. At the close of the argument, the judges thanked the University of St. Thomas School of Law for traveling from Minnesota and commended them for doing a “great job.”

The Appellate Clinic is a year-long course that charges students to study written and oral advocacy, appellate courts, appellate jurisdiction, and the rules of appellate procedure. Clinical students represent a client pro bono under faculty supervision, briefing and arguing appellate cases on their behalf.