Oral argument: November 2, 2010
Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (Feb. 7, 2009)
SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY, RLUIPA, MONETARY RELIEF, FREE EXERCISE OF RELIGION
Harvey Leroy Sossamon, III is an inmate at a Texas state prison. The prison warden refused to allow cell-restricted inmates to attend religious services and denied all inmates use of the prison chapel for religious purposes. In 2006, Sossamon filed suit against the State of Texas and various state and prison officials, alleging that the Texas prison violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"). Sossamon sought declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as compensatory and punitive damages. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Texas, holding that Texas has sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment and is not liable for damages. The Fifth Circuit affirmed. Sossamon argues here that the words “appropriate relief,” as provided by RLUIPA, unambiguously waives the state's immunity from damages. Texas counters that “appropriate relief” does not amount to clear notice which is required before a state may waive its sovereign immunity. The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will determine the protection afforded to states under RLUIPA and may deter states from implementing policies which violate the Act.