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Placement in Maximum Security Facility May Trigger Due Process Protections; Religious Diet Claims Remanded

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has reversed a district court’s grant of summary judgment to Michigan prison officials in a procedural due process and religious diet lawsuit.

Lamont Bernard Heard received a Security Threat Group II (STG II) assignment and was placed in a Level V maximum-security prison after making inciting comments during a Nation of Islam (NOI) service at the Chippewa Correctional Facility in Kincheloe, Michigan.

While at the maximum-security facility, Heard requested a religious diet recommended by NOI founder Elijah Muhammad. Alternatively, Heard asked that he be given a kosher diet. Prison officials denied both requests.

Heard sued, arguing that he had a protected liberty interest in avoiding placement in a maximum-security facility. In addition, he raised an equal protection and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) claim. The district court denied relief and Heard appealed.

Concerning Heard’s procedural due process claim, the Sixth Circuit held that the district court had erred in finding “that Heard’s placement in maximum-security facilities in Michigan was not an ‘atypical and significant hardship’ that implicated a liberty interest.”

The district court, the Sixth Circuit explained, had reached its conclusion “without explanation” and in the face of evidence that suggested the conditions in Michigan’s maximum-security facilities mimicked those of an Ohio supermax the Supreme Court held implicated a protected liberty interest in Wilkinson v. Austin, 545 U.S. 209 (2005) [PLN, Aug. 2005, p.24].

However, the record remained unclear as to certain parallels between the prison at issue in Austin and the facility where Heard was housed, and Heard had been denied discovery on those issues. Accordingly, the appellate court vacated the dismissal of Heard’s due process claim and remanded for further proceedings.

The Sixth Circuit also vacated and remanded the dismissal of Heard’s religious diet claims. “In the prison context,” the Court of Appeals wrote, “we have explained that policies infringing on religious rights may be found unreasonable where accommodations are made for others.”

In Heard’s case, prison officials accommodated Jewish and Buddhist prisoners’ requests for a religious diet. Thus, Heard had adequately alleged an equal protection violation. The appellate court similarly concluded that Heard had alleged a RLUIPA violation. While the defendants claimed that they could not accommodate Heard’s religious diet request because it was nutritionally inadequate, he had been denied discovery on the defendants’ claims, the Sixth Circuit noted.

Accordingly, it was error at this point in the case for the district court to have entered summary judgment for the defendants. The judgment of the district court was reversed. See: Heard v. Caruso, 351 Appx. 1 (6th Cir. 2009) (unpublished).

Following remand, the district court denied Heard’s motions for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction on May 10, 2010. His motion for appointment of counsel was granted that same month, though. Attorneys David J. Gass and Joseph J. Gavin were appointed to represent Heard, and they filed an amended complaint in November 2010. This case remains pending the defendants’ renewed motion for summary judgment. See: Heard v. Caruso, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Mich.), Case No. 2:05-cv-00231-PLM-TPG.

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Related legal cases

Heard v. Caruso

Heard v. Caruso