ROMANELLI v. SULIENE (August 11, 2010)

Ron Romanelli was incarcerated at the Columbia County Jail. He claims that he was in desperate need of medical attention while incarcerated and that Dr. Suliene and Sgt. Kuhl violated his rights to adequate medical care. The district court granted Romanelli leave to proceed on his § 1983 claim but denied his motion for court-appointed counsel as premature. The court denied a second motion a few months later, concluding that Romanelli was capable of representing himself. After the court denied the defendant's motions for summary judgment, it also denied Romanelli's third request for counsel. The court concluded that the case was not complex, that Romanelli had successfully defeated the summary judgment motions, and that the Romanelli was provided with detailed trial instructions. The case proceeded to trial before Magistrate Judge Crocker. The Magistrate Judge ruled that the defendants were permitted to impeach Romanelli with evidence of prior convictions for issuing worthless checks, bail jumping, and sexual assault -- he did not permit impeachment with evidence of Romanelli's convictions for resisting/obstructing an officer and failure to report as a sex offender. A jury concluded that Romanelli did not suffer from a serious medical condition. The court entered judgment in favor of the defendants. Romanelli appeals.

In their opinion, Judges Ripple, Kanne, and Sykes affirmed. The Court first noted the absence of any right to counsel in a civil case but added that a district court has discretion under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(1) to appoint counsel. In exercising that discretion, the court should examine whether the plaintiff is indigent, whether the plaintiff has made reasonable attempts to retain counsel, whether the case is complex, and whether the plaintiff is capable of representing himself. The Court concluded that the district court applied that proper standard and did not abuse its discretion in denying court-appointed counsel to Romanelli. The court acted within its discretion in denying a) the first motion -- it was too early for the court to make the necessary determinations, b) the second motion -- exceptional circumstances were absent and the court made a threshold determination that Romanelli was capable of representing himself in a relatively simple case, and c) the third motion -- Romanelli had proven himself capable of his own representation. The Court added that Romanelli had a very weak case on the facts and suffered no obvious prejudice due to the lack of professional representation. With respect to the evidence of prior convictions, the Court also concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion. The Court relied on the facts that almost all of the evidence relating to Romanelli's prior convictions was brought into the record by Romanelli himself and that the court included limiting instructions to the jury. Finally, the Court also noted that any evidentiary error would have been harmless given Romanelli's lack of credibility and the dearth of corroborating evidence.