Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Supreme Court Holds Inmates May Not Recover Damages Against States In RLUIPA Suits

In an important interpretation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday in Sossamon v. Texas (US Sup. Ct., April 20, 2011) held, in a 6-2 decision, that states which accept federal funding for their prisons retain sovereign immunity to monetary damage claims under RLUIPA. Section 4 of RLUIPA provides that inmates may “obtain appropriate relief against a government” that has substantially burdened their religious exercise without having a compelling interest for doing so, and which does not use the least restrictive means in achieving that interest. The majority opinion, written by Justice Thomas, concluded that waiver of sovereign immunity requires an express and unequivocal statement to that effect in the statute, and that this standard has not been met here as to the imposition of monetary damages. A dissent, written by Justice Sotomayor and joined by Justice Breyer disagreed. They argued that it should have been clear to state officials that “appropriate relief” includes monetary damages and not just equitable relief.  They worried that without the possibility of monetary damages, often effective relief will be unavailable. Justice Kagan took no part in the decision.  UPI reports on the decision.  (See prior related posting.)