United States v. Sanders, No. 20-2561 (7th Cir. 2021)

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Justia Opinion Summary

In 2017, Sanders pled guilty to six drug offense counts. She was sentenced to 120 months’ imprisonment and is serving her sentence at Federal Correctional Institution Coleman Low in Florida. In 2020, Coleman Low experienced outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease and COVID‐19. In July 2020, Sanders filed an “Emergency Motion for Compassionate Release” under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A), citing her health problems: cardio obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, obesity, and Type II diabetes. She is 59 years old and a former heavy smoker. The government’s response indicated that Sanders had tested positive for COVID‐19 on July 15 and that any symptoms had subsided by July 23.

On August 4, the district court denied Sanders’s motion, detailing her criminal history and medical history and finding that section 1B1.13 of the Sentencing Guidelines and the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors weighed against her release. The court concluded that home confinement would be unsuitable, noting that a methamphetamine lab had been found in her kitchen. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Although Sanders was foreclosed from addressing the medical records attached in the government’s response, the district court did not abuse its discretion or deny Sanders due process.

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In the United States Court of Appeals For the Seventh Circuit ____________________ No. 20 2561 UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff Appellee, v. VICKIE L. SANDERS, Defendant Appellant. ____________________ Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. No. 17 cr 40043 — J. Phil Gilbert, Judge. ____________________ ARGUED FEBRUARY 10, 2021 — DECIDED MARCH 24, 2021 ____________________ Before MANION, KANNE, and ROVNER, Circuit Judges. KANNE, Circuit Judge. When COVID 19 and Legionnaires’ disease began spreading in Vickie Sanders’s correctional fa cility—where she is serving a sentence for o enses related to manufacturing methamphetamine—she became nervous about her own health. Sanders su ers from numerous medi cal conditions, many of which put her at higher risk of serious illness from those diseases. 2 No. 20 2561 Represented by counsel, she petitioned the district court for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) in light of the outbreaks and her particular susceptibility. But af ter the government submitted new medical records that Sand ers was foreclosed from addressing, the court denied her re lief. It found that, although Sanders su ers from medical con ditions that place her at greater risk of serious illness, her criminal history and the court’s finding that home confine ment would be unsuitable (a methamphetamine lab was found in her kitchen) weighed against sentence modification. Because the district court did not abuse its discretion or deny Sanders due process, we a rm. I. BACKGROUND In 2017, a grand jury charged Vickie Sanders with conspir acy to manufacture fifty grams or more of methamphetamine (Count 1), attempt to manufacture methamphetamine (Count 2), and possession of pseudoephedrine knowing that it would be used to manufacture methamphetamine (Counts 3–6). She pled guilty to all six counts. In May 2018, the district court sentenced Sanders to 120 months’ imprisonment on Count 1 and 87 months’ imprison ment on Counts 2 through 6, to run concurrently. The sen tence also included eight years of supervised release, a $300 fine, and a $600 special assessment. We affirmed her convic tions and sentence on direct appeal. United States v. Sanders, 909 F.3d 895 (7th Cir. 2018). Sanders is currently serving her sentence at Federal Cor rectional Institution Coleman Low in Florida. In 2020, FCI No. 20 2561 3 Coleman Low experienced outbreaks of Legionnaires’ dis ease1 and COVID 19. On July 10, 2020, just over two years into her ten year sen tence, Sanders filed an “Emergency Motion for Compassion ate Release” under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A). She requested immediate release in light of the COVID 19 pandemic, the outbreaks of COVID 19 and Legionnaires’ at FCI Coleman Low, and her particular susceptibility. In her motion, Sanders listed her numerous medical conditions, including several that put her at increased risk of serious illness if she is infected by COVID 19 or Legionnaires’. Such conditions included car dio obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, obesity, and Type II diabetes. She also noted that her age (59 years old) and status as a former heavy smoker increased her risk.2 On July 14, 2020, the district court entered a scheduling order that required the government to respond to Sanders’s 1 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that “[p]eople can get Legionnaires’ disease … when they breathe in small droplets of water in the air that contain the bacteria [legionella].” Legionella (Legionnaires’ Disease and Pontiac Fever): Causes, How it Spreads, and People at Increased Risk, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/legionella/about/causes transmission.html (last vis ited Mar. 17, 2020). “Legionella is a type of bacterium found naturally in freshwater environments,” and “can become a health concern when it grows and spreads in human made building water systems.” Id. 2 Other conditions that she listed include: hypertension, hyper lipidemia, peripheral artery disease, chronic viral hepatitis C, anemia, sleep apnea, vitamin D deficiency, varicose veins, lumbar degenerative disc disease, foot pain, peripheral neuropathy, cervical dysplasia, diver ticulitis, and depression. 4 No. 20 2561 motion within five weeks. That same day, Sanders filed a mo tion to expedite. The district court granted the motion. On July 31, 2020, the government filed its response and at tached new medical records, including records stating that Sanders had tested positive for COVID 19 on July 15 and that any symptoms had subsided by July 23. On August 4, 2020, the district court entered its order denying Sanders’s motion for compassionate release. After detailing her criminal history, medical history, and compas sionate release request, the court found that § 1B1.13 of the Sentencing Guidelines and the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors weighed against her release. Sanders filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing that she should have been given the opportunity to file a reply un der Southern District of Illinois Local Rule 7.1(g) and that the court erred in its analysis. The district court denied her mo tion, and Sanders timely appealed. II. ANALYSIS Sanders argues that the district court violated its own local rules and denied her due process when it issued its order denying relief without giving her the opportunity to file a re ply brief. She also argues that the court abused its discretion by failing to sufficiently consider her current medical condi tions and arguments in its analysis. A. No Opportunity to File a Reply We first address Sanders’s challenge to the district court’s application of Southern District of Illinois Local Rule 7.1(g). District courts have “considerable discretion in interpreting and applying their local rules.” Dr. Robert L. Meinders, D.C., No. 20 2561 5 Ltd. v. UnitedHealthcare, Inc., 800 F.3d 853, 858 (7th Cir. 2015) (quoting Cuevas v. United States, 317 F.3d 751, 752 (7th Cir. 2003)). “[W]e ‘will intrude on that discretion only where we are convinced that the district court made a mistake.’” Id. (quoting Bunn v. Khoury Enters., Inc., 753 F.3d 676, 681 (7th Cir. 2014)). Of course, this discretion does not allow courts to apply a rule in a way that violates a litigant’s due process rights. Id. (“When strict adherence to local rules … threatens to deprive a litigant of the opportunity to respond, the local rules must give way to considerations of due process and fundamental fairness.”). “Due process … requires that a [party] be given an opportunity to respond to an argument or evidence raised as a basis to dismiss his or her claims.” Id. For example, in Meinders, we found that the blanket proscription of sur reply briefs in Southern District of Illinois Local Rule 7.1(c) created the potential for due process violations. But the litigant’s due process rights were not violated until “the district court’s dis missal order relied on” new arguments and evidence. Id. (em phasis added); see also United States v. Neal, 611 F.3d 399, 402 (7th Cir. 2010) (“[The defendant] is entitled to an opportunity to contest propositions that affect how long he must spend in prison.”). Local Rule 7.1(g) provides that “[a] reply, if any, shall be filed within 7 days of the service of the response. Reply briefs are not favored and should be filed only in exceptional cir cumstances. The party filing the reply brief shall state the ex ceptional circumstances.” S.D. Ill. R. 7.1(g). Sanders argues that the government’s attachment of new medical records warranted a reply. In its response brief, the government attached medical records dated after Sanders 6 No. 20 2561 filed her opening brief. According to the government, Sanders had already contracted COVID 19 and was “basically asymp tomatic and not suffering any serious illness.” The medical records show that Sanders tested positive for COVID 19 on July 15 and, thereafter on July 21, she gave no indication of any symptoms such as fever, chills, shortness of breath (SOB), or body aches. The record further states that she did experience headache, decreased smell and taste, and an itching rash. Thereafter on July 23, a lack of any symptoms is indicated except for phlegm and a rash. In its order of denial, the district court stated that Sanders had tested positive for COVID 19 and indicated a lack of dis played symptoms. Then, the court prohibited Sanders from exercising an opportunity to file a reply brief contesting the validity of the information contained in the order of denial. In its order denying Sanders’s motion for reconsideration, the district court addressed Local Rule 7.1(g)’s standard. The court found that Sanders had failed to describe “exceptional circumstances” that merited filing a reply and, regardless, nothing would have changed because the order denying relief was not concerned with the existence or nonexistence of symptoms. More specifically, the order stated that the court “did not rely on a finding that Sanders is asymptomatic. Ra ther when considering Sanders’ history and characteristics, the Court balanced Sanders’ severe medical conditions with her ‘decades long history of crime.’” And the face of the dis trict court’s order denying relief supports that conclusion. As described in more detail below, its analysis focused on Sand ers’s criminal history and other facts not in dispute. No. 20 2561 7 Thus, the district court’s denial of relief did not rely on new evidence, so it could not constitute “a basis to dismiss [Sanders’s] claims” in violation of her due process rights. Meinders, 800 F.3d at 858. For the same reason, the court did not abuse its discretion when it denied her request to file a reply for failing to identify exceptional circumstances under Local Rule 7.1(g). B. Denial of Compassionate Release We now turn to Sanders’s challenge to the district court’s analysis in its order denying compassionate release. We will not upset a district court’s denial of a motion for compassion ate release unless the court abused its “considerable discre tion” under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A). United States v. Saunders, 986 F.3d 1076, 1077 (7th Cir. 2021). A motion brought under § 3582(c)(1)(A) allows the court to reduce a prison sentence if, “after considering the factors set forth in section 3553(a) to the extent that they are applica ble,” it finds “extraordinary and compelling reasons war rant[ing] such a reduction.” 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A); see also Saunders, 986 F.3d at 1078. Here, the district court concluded that the § 3553(a) factors weighed against Sanders’s release.3 3 Section 3582(c)(1)(A) also provides that the district court may only reduce a sentence if “such a reduction is consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission.” But the Sentencing Commission has not updated U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13 since the First Step Act amended the statute to permit an inmate to petition the court herself. Thus, we have held that “§ 1B1.13 does not apply when the prisoner, ra ther than the Bureau [of Prisons], moves for compassionate release.” Saun ders, 986 F.3d at 1078 (citing United States v. Gunn, 980 F.3d 1178, 1180 (7th Cir. 2020)). 8 No. 20 2561 The court examined the nature and circumstances of Sand ers’s methamphetamine offenses—for example, when she was arrested, law enforcement discovered a methampheta mine lab in her kitchen and a loaded handgun—and found that Sanders had committed “recent and deplorable offenses” that “placed the welfare of the community at risk.” That factor therefore weighed against release. Then, the court determined that Sanders’s history and characteristics were a neutral factor because, although her medical conditions place her at a higher risk of severe illness, her lengthy criminal history belies her argument that she is not a danger to the community. The court similarly found that the need for the sentence imposed is neutral. Finally, the court determined that the kinds of sen tences available weighed against release because her offenses involving the manufacturing of methamphetamine took place in her own kitchen—a significant concern when she is re questing home confinement. Sanders argues that the district court erred in its § 3553(a) analysis by not considering all of her arguments in its order denying relief. We disagree. First, she contends that the court relied on out of date medical information because it failed to list each of her medi cal conditions in its analysis and that it did not acknowledge that they made her more susceptible to illness from legionella. But the court clearly identified Sanders’s medical conditions, from her presentence report as well as updated medical Although the district court incorrectly believed itself to be bound by § 1B1.13, any error is harmless because the court’s weighing of the § 3553(a) factors independently supports its decision, id., and Sanders con ceded in her reply brief that “the district court primarily rested on a weighing of the § 3553(a) factors.” No. 20 2561 9 records, in the “medical history” and “compassionate re lease” sections of its order, and it generally referred to those conditions in its analysis. It was not required to re list each condition to demonstrate that it adequately considered it. The same is true for its consideration of Sanders’s risk of illness by legionella. And the court reiterated in its order denying Sand ers’s motion for reconsideration that “[a]lthough the Memo randum & Order did not make a second reference to le gionella, the Court considered it then and remains of the same mind now.” Second, Sanders argues that the court should have re ferred to her record of discipline, program participation, and substance abuse and mental health treatment in its analysis. But “the district court need not provide a detailed, written ex planation analyzing every § 3553(a) factor.” United States v. Marion, 590 F.3d 475, 477 (7th Cir. 2009). Regardless, in its de nial of Sanders’s motion for reconsideration, the court ex pressly addressed her post sentencing behavior, stating that “[w]hile the Court commends her achievements, the facts un derlying her recent conviction suggest that she still presents a danger to the community.” When issuing an order denying compassionate release, the court must “provide some state ment of reasons supporting its decision.” Id. It did so here. Thus, the district court reasonably weighed the § 3553(a) factors and did not abuse its discretion in finding that they weighed against release. III. CONCLUSION The district court did not violate Sanders’s due process rights or commit an abuse of discretion when it denied Sand ers the opportunity to reply to the government’s response. It 10 No. 20 2561 also did not abuse its discretion in denying her motion for compassionate release. We AFFIRM.
Primary Holding
Seventh Circuit affirms the denial of a motion for compassionate release in light of COVID-19.

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