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Nebraska Prison Officials Must Pay Attorney’s Fees in Kosher Diet Case; Found in Contempt After Excrement Discovered in Prisoner’s Food

Nebraska prison officials cannot delay paying $204,856.28 in attorney’s fees and costs awarded in a lawsuit where they were found to have violated the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by failing to post a prayer schedule and to provide a prisoner with kosher meals, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph F. Bataillon ruled on February 4, 2009. Separately, Judge Bataillon held prison officials in contempt after it was discovered that the court’s order requiring that the prisoner be provided with kosher meals had been violated by guards who, among other things, put excrement in his food.

As previously reported by PLN, Mohamed El-Tabech, a Nebraska state prisoner, successfully sued prison officials for violating RLUIPA and the First Amendment by refusing to provide him with kosher meals and post a daily prayer schedule. [PLN, Oct. 2008, p.30]. As relief for the violations, the court ordered the provision of “nutritionally-sufficient kosher meals” and the posting of prayer schedules. Additionally, the court ordered the defendants to pay $204,856.28 in El-Tabech’s attorney’s fees and costs.

Despite the court orders, Nebraska prison officials were reluctant to comply. For example, they told El-Tabech’s attorneys that they had to file a claim with the Nebraska State Claims Board and wait for the legislature to appropriate funds for the judgment before it would be paid. Refusing to play such games, El-Tabech’s attorneys sought execution of the judgment and filed a motion under Fed.R.Civ.P. 69 and 70.

The district court granted the motion. “The state may not successfully hide behind state procedural shields to avoid the consequences of a valid district court judgment,” the court wrote. Accordingly, Judge Bataillon ordered that El-Tabech’s attorneys receive nearly $8,000 in interest on the fee award, and that interest accrue at the rate of fourteen percent from the date of the court’s order to ensure the attorney’s fees were paid.

The district court also found noncompliance with its order that El-Tabech be provided with kosher meals. The court held that El-Tabech had demonstrated that “on several occasions, he has found non-kosher foreign materials, including excrement, in his food.”
According to prison officials, that was due to “rogue employees.” Finding such noncompliance to be civil contempt, the court ordered that El-Tabech be provided with prepackaged kosher meals to avoid tampering by prison staff. See: El-Tabech v. Clarke, U.S.D.C. (D. Neb.), Case No. 4:04-cv-03231.

El-Tabech’s attorneys subsequently filed a supplemental motion for attorney’s fees in connection with their successful contempt motion, post-judgment monitoring of the court’s kosher meal order, and enforcement of the prior fee award. On June 10, 2009, the district court granted the supplemental fee request, finding it “reasonable in light of the defendant’s conduct” and ordering the defendants to pay an additional $73,360.20 in attorney’s fees and $271.20 in costs. See: El-Tabech v. Clarke, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49062 (D. Neb. 2009).

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Related legal cases

El-Tabech v. Clarke

El-Tabech v. Clarke