Friday, October 14, 2016

3rd Circuit Gives Muslim Inmate Victory On Retaliation and RFRA Claims

In Mack v. Warden, (3d Cir., Oct. 11, 2016), the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in a lengthy opinion gave an unusual victory to an inmate who claims that anti-Muslim harassment by two correctional officers caused him to refrain from praying while at his paid work assignment at a federal prison commissary.  He contends that he was terminated from his work assignment for orally complaining to a supervisor about the harassment.  The suit was filed pro se, and inmate Charles Mack lost at the trial court level.  However he prevailed on a number of his claims on appeal at which he was represented by law students from Duke University's Appellate Litigation Clinic.

One of the defendant officers slapped Mack on his back, sticking an "I Love Bacon" sign on him, and then threatened to have him fired when he later objected.  The appeals court held 2-1 that Mack's oral complaint to a prison guard about the mistreatment qualifies as a petition for the redress of grievances protected by the 1st and 14th Amendments.  It thus supports a 1st Amendment retaliation claim. Second the appeals court held unanimously that a claim for damages under RFRA (as opposed to RLUIPA) lies against individual officers for their ultra vires acts, even though a prison policy or regulation is not being challenged, and that the alleged conduct substantially burdened plaintiff's religious exercise. The court however refused to extend a Bivens damage remedy for 1st Amendment free exercise violations and also dismissed plaintiff's equal protection claim. Penn Live reports on the decision.