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Media Alerts - Mack v. Warden Loretto FCI - Third Circuit
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October 17, 2016
  Mack v. Warden Loretto FCI - Third Circuit
Headline: Third Circuit Finds That Inmate's Oral Grievance Of Anti-Muslim Harassment Is Constitutionally Protected Under First Amendment and Indirect Pressure May Constitute a Substantial Burden on Religious Expression under Religious Freedom and Restoration Act

Area of Law: First Amendment Retaliation, Religious Freedom and Restoration Act

Issue(s) Presented: (1) Whether an inmate's oral grievance to prison officials can constitute protected activity under the Constitution; (2) Whether RFRA prohibits individual conduct that substantially burdens religious exercise; and (3) Whether RFRA provides for monetary relief from an official sued in his individual capacity.

Brief Summary: Plaintiff, an inmate and practicing Muslim at a federal correctional institution in Pennsylvania, filed a pro se lawsuit against various correctional officers for First Amendment retaliation and for violations of the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act. Plaintiff argued that he was fired from his commissary work assignment after he complained about officers' anti-Muslim conduct. He also claimed that one officer's anti-Muslim comments and conduct created a hostile work environment such that he was afraid to pray at work. He complained orally and in writing after the harassment, after the termination, and after receiving an unsatisfactory explanation for the termination. The Third Circuit found that Plaintiff's oral complaint was constitutionally protected and certain Defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity. The Court also found that the RFRA was the appropriate vehicle for relief to challenge a government official's individual conduct that indirectly coerced Plaintiff to betray his religious exercise.

Extended Summary: Plaintiff worked for pay in the prison commissary. Plaintiff was a practicing Muslim and was provided certain religious accommodations at work. Defendants were assigned to supervise the commissary. One officer slapped Plaintiff hard on the back, tagging him with an "I love bacon" sticker. He also made offensives comments about Muslims and told Plaintiff, "he'd be looking for a new job soon." Another officer stood by and laughed. Plaintiff claimed that the officers' conduct created a tense working environment, and that as a result Plaintiff was afraid to pray at work.

Plaintiff spoke to the officers' supervisor to complain about the anti-Muslim conduct and statements. Plaintiff was fired one week later for "bringing other inmates' commissary slips in," which Plaintiff denied. He eventually filed an inmate request-to-staff form seeking explanation in writing for why he was terminated. He orally complained to the Warden and then filed a formal grievance with the Deputy Warden. This federal lawsuit followed after his grievance was rejected.

With regard to the First Amendment retaliation claim, the Third Circuit affirmed dismissal of claims against certain Defendants because they were not involved until after Plaintiff was terminated. The Court vacated the dismissal and remanded for further proceeding with regard to the remaining Defendants. The Court found that Plaintiff properly exhausted his administrative remedies, alerting prison officials to his principal allegation, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The Court also found that Plaintiff's oral complaint was constitutionally protected because it sufficiently and timely put prison officials on notice that he sought redress, was conveyed in a reasonable manner, and concerned conduct that the prison itself prohibited. The Court additionally noted that the facility encouraged inmates to communicate their concerns orally and informally before filing a grievance. Lastly, the Court found that Defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity because a reasonable official in the officers' position should have known that retaliating against Plaintiff for exercising his right to petition was unlawful, especially if the prison encouraged its inmates to communicate their concerns orally.

With regard to the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act ("RFRA") claim, the Third Circuit vacated dismissal and remanded for further proceedings. The Court held that RFRA is the appropriate vehicle for relief to challenge a government official's individual conduct, regardless of whether that conduct was undertaken pursuant to an official rule or policy. The Court also held that RFRA provides for monetary relief when officers act unlawfully because monetary damages would be consistent with the purpose of RFRA to provide "appropriate relief" when religious liberty is substantially burden by government officials. Lastly, the Court held that a burden could be substantial even if it does not involved direct coercion to betray one's religious beliefs. Allegations of indirect pressure substantially burdening religious exercise are sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.

The full opinion can be found at http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/142738p.pdf

Panel: McKee, Fuentes, and Roth, Circuit Judges

Argument Date: April 18, 2016

Date of Issued Opinion: October 11, 2016

Docket Number: 14-2738

Decided: Affirmed in part, vacated in part and remanded

Case Alert Author: Jasmine M.Williams

Counsel: Sean E. Andrussier, Esq. and Duke University Law Students, John Bailey, Anne Showalter, Russell Taylor, Attorneys for Appellant; Jennifer R. Andrade, Esq., Jane M. Dattilo, Esq., and Rebecca R. Haywood, Esq., Office of United States Attorney, Attorneys for Appellees

Author of Opinion: Circuit Judge Fuentes

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Mary E. Levy

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 10/17/2016 09:49 AM     3rd Circuit  

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