Megan Massie and Sarah Almquist.
Third-year School of Law students Megan Massie (l) and Sarah Almquist.

School of Law 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 San Francisco, California, on April 15.

The case, Gerald Von Tobel v. Johns, et al., was argued by students Sarah Almquist and Megan Massie, who worked on behalf of the school’s Appellate Clinic led by Professor Gregory Sisk. The appellate team began working on the case in summer 2021, writing an opening brief, a reply brief, and then preparing for oral argument.

Gerald Von Tobel, a prisoner in Nevada, suffered locking and fused joints in both hands, causing pain and making him unable to use either hand for ordinary tasks of daily life. Four specialists recommended surgery, and the prison formally notified Von Tobel that he was being scheduled for surgery on both hands. Then a prison physician blocked the surgery, allegedly saying that Von Tobel’s condition was not important enough for her to be concerned about.

Von Tobel, acting pro se, brought claims in the U.S. District Court in Nevada alleging deliberate indifference to a serious medical need in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The trial court granted summary judgment to the prison officials.

On appeal, the University of St. Thomas Appellate Clinic contended that the record amply demonstrated a serious medical need and that defendant prison officials had failed to present any evidence explaining why the prison doctor had prevented the surgery or disputing statements that indicated indifference.

(From left) Megan Massie, Professor Gregory Sisk and Sarah Almquist.

At the oral argument, the three judges asked numerous questions about the record, including pressing the Nevada deputy solicitor general on the absence of evidence in the record on a medical reason for obstructing the surgery and questioning whether the state could rely on speculation or inferences in its favor when the defendants were the parties asking for summary judgment. At the close of the argument, the judges thanked the students for their work on the case.

The Appellate Clinic is a yearlong course of study in written and oral advocacy, appellate courts, appellate jurisdiction, and the rules of appellate procedure. Clinical students represent a prisoner client pro bono under faculty supervision, briefing and arguing appellate cases on their behalf. The Appellate Clinic is led by Professor Gregory Sisk, Laghi Distinguished Chair in Law. The Appellate Clinic is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, having established a record of prevailing in two-thirds of the cases it has taken.