Decided: February 3, 2014
The Fourth Circuit held that (1) the Red Onion State Prison’s (ROSP) decision to abandon its policy of requiring prisoners to present physical indicia of Islamic faith to qualify for special Ramadan meals did not moot Gary Wall’s (Wall) claims for equitable relief under the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc, et seq., and (2) that the defendant officials were not entitled to qualified immunity with regard to Wall’s claim for damages under the First Amendment. The Fourth Circuit therefore vacated the decision of the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia and remanded the case to the district court.
Wall, a member of the Islamic faith, is a state prisoner at ROSP. In 2008 and 2009, he participated in Ramadan while in custody: prison officials provided him with special meals prior to sunrise and after sunset. Before 2010, ROSP’s Muslim inmates simply had to sign up to partake in Ramadan observance. However, after ROSP officials determined that many participating inmates were not actually Muslims, ROSP created a new policy for 2010 (the 2010 Ramadan policy): this year, inmates “had to provide some physical indicia of Islamic faith, such as a Quran, Kufi, prayer rug, or written religious material obtained from the prison Chaplain’s office” to participate in Ramadan. When Wall was asked by three of the defendant officials to provide such evidence of the sincerity of his beliefs, he could not do so: Wall told the officials that his possessions had been lost when he was transferred to ROSP, and showed one of the officials a judgment against the state indicating that the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) had lost his belongings. Wall also told the officials that he had participated in Ramadan in the two previous years and produced documentary evidence that he was receiving “common fare” meals,” in accordance with his religious beliefs. However, the officials removed Wall from the list of prisoners participating in Ramadan. Wall filed an informal complaint explaining his situation, but ROSP’s food services manager simply reiterated the new policy. Wall subsequently filed a formal grievance; however, this grievance was also denied. Wall was ultimately forbidden from observing Ramadan in 2010.
Wall filed a lawsuit under the RLUIPA and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging, inter alia, violations of RLUIPA and the First Amendment and seeking equitable and monetary relief. Wall was subsequently transferred to another facility. After his transfer, the district court granted the defendants’ summary judgment motion, holding that Wall’s claims for equitable relief were mooted after the transfer and that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity with regard to Wall’s damages claim. Wall was transferred back to ROSP after the district court issued its decision; according to the defendants, ROSP had since abandoned the 2010 Ramadan policy.
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit found that, under Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Envtl. Servs., Inc., 528 U.S. 167, the defendants could not meet their burden of showing that it is “absolutely clear” that the VDOC would not reinstate the 2010 Ramadan policy. With regard to qualified immunity, the Fourth Circuit noted the defendants’ concession that the 2010 Ramadan policy resulted in a substantial burden on Wall’s religious freedom; in addition, the Fourth Circuit found that the 2010 Ramadan policy was not “reasonably adapted to achieving a legitimate penological objective,” Lovelace v. Lee, 472 F.3d 174, as it did not satisfy the four factors from Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987). The Fourth Circuit also found that Wall’s right to observe Ramadan was clearly established under Lovelace, and that reasonable officials in the defendants’ position would not have “felt it permissible to apply the policy in so strict a fashion.”
– Stephen Sutherland