Whether the term “appropriate relief” as provided in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act should be interpreted to include monetary damages or instead should be interpreted to include only injunctive and declaratory relief?
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.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether an individual may sue a state or state official in his official capacity for damages for violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. §2000cc et seq. (2000 ed.).
Petitioner Harvey Leroy Sossamon, III has been an inmate of the Robertson Unit of the Correctional Institutions Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice since 2002. See Brief of Respondents, Texas et al. at 8. A practicing Christian, Sossamon was barred from using the prison chapel for any religious services, as were all other inmates. See Brief for Petitioner, Harvey Leroy Sossamon, III at 5. Although the inmates are provided with alternative sites for religious services, Sossamon proved that these alternative venues lack Christian symbols. See Sossamon v. Lone Star State Of Texas, 560 F.3d 316, 321 (5th Cir. 2009). Sossamon further proved that worship services at the alternative sites were constantly interrupted by noise from the prison yard and security workers, therefore making them inadequate for use as places of worship. See Id. Additionally, Sossamon and the other inmates were not allowed to attend any worship services at all while placed under disciplinary confinement, even though they were allowed to leave their cells in order to engage in secular activities. See id.
In 2006, Sossamon brought suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas against the State of Texas and numerous prison officials in their official capacities (collectively “Texas”), alleging that both the chapel use and cell restriction policies violated (1) his First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights, (2) the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), and (3) the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“TRFRA”). See Sossamon, 560 F.3d at 322. In his complaint, Sossamon sought declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as compensatory and punitive damages, against the state and its prison officials in their official and individual capacities. See Id. After Sossamon filed suit, the warden of the Robertson Unit changed the cell restriction policy to allow prisoners under disciplinary confinement the ability to attend worship services. See Id. at 322–23.
The District Court granted Texas' motion for summary judgment, concluding that Texas’ sovereign immunity barred Sossamon’s claims for monetary relief. See Sossamon, 560 F.3d at 322. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the District Court’s decision to grant Texas' motion for summary judgment on all claims for damages under RLUIPA. See Id. The court held that Sossamon was barred from suing for monetary damages because the language in RLUIPA did not provide clear notice to Texas that it was waiving its right to sovereign immunity from monetary damages. See Id.
The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari on May 24, 2010 to review the Fifth Circuit’s decision and to decide “whether an individual may sue a State or state official in his official capacity for damages for violations of the RLUIPA.” See Brief for Petitioner at 1.
At issue in this case is a state's liability to for monetary damages under RLUIPA. This Act is a civil rights law enacted in 2000 to “protect against religious discrimination, unequal religious accommodations, and unjustified infringement of the free exercise of religion . . . [of] persons in federally funded state institutions.” See Brief for Petitioner, Harvey Leroy Sossamon, III at 2. The law gives a prisoner the ability to “assert a violation of this chapter as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding and obtain appropriate relief against a government.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-2(a).
Sossamon argues that the statutory language of RLUIPA was adequate to put Texas on notice that the state would be liable for monetary damages stemming from any violations of the Act. See Brief for Petitioner at 12–13. Texas argues that it did not have notice that it would be liable for monetary damages because the term “appropriate relief” is ambiguous and its meaning is open to numerous interpretations. See Brief for Respondents, Texas, et al. at 1.
Sovereign Immunity and a State’s Amenability to Private Lawsuits
The Supreme Court has consistently held that Congress must put a state on notice if the state is required to waive sovereign immunity as a condition to receiving federal money. See Pennhurst State School & Hospital v. Halderman, 451 U.S. 1, 17 (1981). Accordingly, in order to determine if a state has waived its sovereign immunity, a court must ask whether or not Congress, in enacting the particular legislation, spoke with “sufficient clarity to put the state on notice that, to accept federal funds, the state must also accept liability for monetary damages.” See id.Furthermore, any alleged waiver that stems from ambiguous language will be strictly construed in favor of the sovereign state. See Sossamon, 560 F.3d at 330.
“Appropriate Relief” Under RLUIPA and Statutory Construction
Both parties, along with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, agree that the right to “appropriate relief” under RLUIPA affords a prisoner the right to receive both injunctive and declaratory relief for violations under the act. See Sossamon, 560 F.3d at 322. However, Sossamon and Texas disagree as to whether or not the term “appropriate relief” also includes monetary relief; indeed, even the numerous circuits seem to be split on the issue. See Id. at 327. For example, the Eleventh Circuit held in Benning v. Georgia that a state waives its right to sovereign immunity by participating in RLUIPA. 391 F.3d 1299, 1305 (11th Cir. 2004). Conversely, in Madison v. Virginia,the Fourth Circuit found that while a state does waive its right to sovereign immunity in actions for declaratory or injunctive relief by participating in RLUIPA, it does not relinquish this right for monetary damages. 474 F.3d 118, 131 (4th Cir. 2006).
Sossamon argues that the Court should follow its reasoning in Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools and Barnes v Gorman. 503 U.S. 60 (1992); 536 U.S. 181 (2002). Sossamon maintains that in Franklin and Barnes, the Court used the term “appropriate relief” as a term of art to describe the available remedies under numerous civil rights statutes that prohibit discrimination in federally funded programs. See Brief for Petitioner at 8. Sossamon contends that the Court made it clear that monetary damages are the “quintessentially ‘appropriate relief’ for the violation of an individual’s statutory civil rights” See id.
Conversely, Texas argues that the Court’s holding in Lane v. Pena deemed that ambiguous statutes are to be construed in favor of sovereign immunity and not liability. 518 U.S. 187, 196–97 (1996). Texas further argues that the phrase “appropriate relief” is not a term of art because it does not have a “specific, precise meaning." Brief for Respondents at 21. Texas reasons that the ambiguity of the term “appropriate relief” suggests that the Court meant it to describe a basic concept, and not to define a specific set of judicial remedies. See id.
Statutory Language and Congressional Intent
Sossamon maintains that Congress intended “appropriate relief” to include monetary damages. See Brief for Petitioner at 22. Sossamon argues that RLUIPA’s reference to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”) is proof of this. See Id.A provision of RLUIPA states, “nothing in this [statute] shall be construed to amend or repeal the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995.” See Id. at 22–23; 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-2(e). Sossamon argues that the main purpose of the PLRA was to limit the award of compensatory damages only to prisoners, so if Congress intended RLUIPA to only award non-monetary damages, its reference to PLRA would be superfluous. See Brief for Petitioner at 22. Further, Sossamon argues that Congress recognized that injunctive and declaratory relief are insufficient ways of providing adequate remedies to prisoners. See id. at 24. He asserts that this is because when it comes to prisoners, suits for injunctive and declaratory relief often become moot. See id. Sossamon explains that mootness often arises because, before a trial can happen, the allegedly illegal conduct will often cease and the prisoner will be released from custody, or the prisoner may be transferred to another facility. See id. Therefore, he reasons that the effectiveness of the statute would have been significantly undermined if Congress did not intend RLUIPA to allow for monetary damages. See id.
Texas maintains that Congress did not clearly intend “appropriate relief” to include monetary damages. See Brief for Respondents at 6–7. Texas further argues that the intent of Congress can be understood by using the Clear Statement Rule. See id. at 14–16. Texas explains that this rule requires a statutory text to be unambiguously clear before a court can presume Congress intended to make the receipt of federal funds contingent upon a waiver of sovereign immunity. See id. at 14. They argue that Sossamon misconstrues the Clear Statement Rule when he claims that RLUIPA does not expressly exclude an award of monetary damages. See id. at 18. Texas also point out that the judiciary is supposed to search for a clear statement of what the rule includes, rather than what it excludes. See id. The state further asserts that it is significant that Congress could have explicitly authorized the award of damages but it did not. See id. Texas therefore maintains that in the context of a state’s sovereign immunity, monetary relief is especially inappropriate unless “the text unmistakably says otherwise.” See id.
In this case, the Supreme Court must decide whether petitioner Harvey Leroy Sossamon may sue Texas for damages for violating RLUIPA. The Court’s decision will determine the availability of monetary damages for any plaintiff suing under the RLUIPA.
The American Civil Liberties Union, writing in support of Sossamon, contends that the availability of monetary relief is a necessary deterrent to RLUIPA violations. See Brief of Amici Curiae American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) et al. in Support of Petitioner at 7. Further, certain religious organizations, such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the Christian Legal Society, believe that restricting RLUIPA relief would allow a defendant to “moot” a prisoner’s claim by voluntarily ceasing any challenged practices before the suit has begun, rendering a court-ordered injunction pointless. See Brief of Amicus Curiae National Association of Evangelicals in Support of Petitioner at 17. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty argues that even in this case, Texas mooted Sossamon’s claim regarding the prison’s cell-restriction policy by changing the policy on the eve of oral argument. See Brief of Amicus Curiae The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Support of Petitioner at 18. The ACLU notes that an institution may also transfer the suing inmate to another facility, leading a court to deny injunctive relief altogether and allowing the continuation of the unlawful policy. See Brief of ACLU at 7–8. Further, the ACLU argues, a prison’s compliance with an injunction after suit renders RLUIPA inadequate to redress temporary violations such as past failures to accommodate a prisoner during a religious holiday, or violations that occurred only once. See id. at 11.
The State of Texas conversely argues that a decision in favor of Sossamon would extend a court’s inherent powers beyond their traditional scope, producing a number of undesirable results. See Brief for Respondents, Texas et al. at 31. Florida and 30 other states (“States”) contend that such a decision would eliminate the “critical protection” traditionally provided to a sovereign state against suits for monetary damages. See Brief of Amici Curiae Florida et al. in Support of Respondent at 15. This, the States argue, would place a state in the same position as a private, non-sovereign litigant, contradicting the purpose of sovereign immunity. See id. at 16.
Texas argues that a decision in favor of Sossamon would create different interpretations of the phrase “appropriate relief” as it appears in RLUIPA, which applies to states, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), which applies to the federal government. See Brief for Respondents at 34. Texas argues that this split would unfairly allow the federal government, but not a state, to maintain its sovereign immunity and avoid monetary liability under statutes aimed at protecting the free exercise of religion. See Id. The federal government, on the other hand, contends that a decision in favor of Texas would limit Congress to a particular set of words when it wishes to allow an individual to sue a sovereign entity for monetary damages. See Brief of Amicus Curiae the Unites States in Support of Petitioner at 20.
The Supreme Court’s decision will affect the types of relief available to plaintiffs suing under RLUIPA. If the Court rules in favor of Texas, state institutions such as prisons may be able to circumvent RLUIPA by ceasing violative behavior prior to suit or merely transferring the litigating prisoner. This would arguably render injunctive and declaratory relief inadequate. On the other hand, a ruling in favor of Sossamon may allow a state’s sovereign immunity to be waived under RLUIPA while the United States’ immunity under similar laws would remain intact.
The Supreme Court's decision in this case will affect whether a plaintiff suing a State under RLUIPA will be able to obtain monetary damages in addition to injunctive and declaratory relief. Sossamon claims that RLUIPA's provision that "appropriate relief" may be obtained against a government put the State of Texas on notice that such relief includes damages. Sossamon bases this claim on the history of RLUIPA and similar statutes, Congress' intent in passing RLUIPA, and Supreme Court precedent. Texas contends that such notice was not clearly given, and thus the scope of the phrase "appropriate relief" should be limited to injunctive and declaratory relief.
· Department of Justice: Report on the Tenth Anniversary of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act
· Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Derek Gaubatz: RLUIPA at Four: Evaluating the Success and Constitutionality of RLUIPA’s Prisoner Provisions