Seventh Circuit Vacates District Court’s Rejection of Magistrate Judge’s Credibility Findings Without a Hearing

In McIntosh v. Wexford Health Sources, Inc., No. 19-1095 (7th Cir. Feb. 5, 2021), the Seventh Circuit holds that the district court erred by reversing a magistrate judge’s ruling that a prisoner exhausted his remedies under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) “without itself holding a new hearing upon which to base its own credibility determinations.”

“In early 2017 Illinois inmate Dallas McIntosh invoked 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and sued Wexford Health Sources and multiple jail officials for acting with deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs.” The defendant moved for summary judgment on exhaustion-of-remedies under the PLRA. McIntosh testified that he “timely fil[ed] grievances detailing the substance of his complaints with the appropriate officers in the manner prescribed by the jail’s written procedures. But the process came to an abrupt halt, McIntosh continue[d], when Sergeant … Strubberg told him that the internal administrative process was on hold pending the outcome of a criminal investigation into how he had obtained such large quantities of unprescribed pain medication.”

The magistrate judge heard McIntosh’s testimony and Sgt. Strubberg’s, finally crediting McIntosh’s account and recommending that summary judgment be denied.

But the district court rejected the magistrate’s report and recommendation solely on the papers and transcripts, without a hearing. Specifically, the district court rejected the “credibility determinations underpinning [the magistrate’s] finding. The district court found that McIntosh’s grievance paperwork reflected forgery and rejected the two inmate affidavits as containing impermissible hearsay. Even more, the district court underscored that it saw the parties’ credibility much differently, finding it ‘plainly apparent that Strubberg and his story are much more credible than McIntosh and his.’ Relying on these new findings, the district court entered summary judgment for the defendants.”

The Seventh Circuit vacates. Under the Federal Magistrate Act, when a party objects to a report and recommendation, Congress “tasked the district court with making ‘a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.’” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). In United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667 (1980), the Supreme Court held that a district court may approve and accept a magistrate’s credibility determinations without a hearing. The Seventh Circuit holds, though, that it violates due process for the district court to reject such credibility findings without convening a testimonial hearing.

“We do not mean to chisel our observations … into an unyielding rule. It may be that in some rare circumstance, particular credibility findings by a magistrate judge find no plausible support in the record. But that is far from what transpired here. Our review of the record leaves us with the impression that the magistrate judge’s credibility findings had ample support.”

“Hearings often offer what paper cannot. The court will hear directly from the witnesses and have the opportunity to assess the coherence of their accounts by evaluating their demeanor, conduct, clarity, conviction, body language, and the like—in a word, their credibility. In this way, the new hearing is not just process for the sake of process. Process matters precisely because it often enhances the quality of decision making. All of that is certainly so here, where so much turns on assessments of individual and comparative credibility.”

In closing, the panel makes two other observations about the proceedings. “First, the district court must be sure to draw all reasonable inferences in McIntosh’s favor. We are not certain the court did so the first time around …. A fresh hearing will allow the court to take a new look at the evidence and to consider it in the light most favorable to McIntosh. Second, the district court should consider McIntosh’s two inmate affidavits. …. The two affidavits are not inadmissible hearsay [under Fed. R. Evid. 801(c)(2)] because they were submitted not for their truth—not to prove as a matter of fact that McIntosh would have to await the conclusion of the investigation before proceeding further with the grievance process—but instead to establish what Sergeant Strubberg said and what effect his words may have had on McIntosh.”

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