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Oregon RLUIPA Claim Mooted By Release; Damages Not Available Under RLUIPA

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the sovereign immunity and mootness dismissal of an Oregon prisoner's religious freedom suit.

In 2004, Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) prisoner Blackie Alvarez, sued several ODOC officials in their official capacity. He alleged that Defendants substantially burdened the practice of his Native American religion, in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 USC §§ 2000cc to 2000cc-5.

The district court granted prison officials summary judgment but the Ninth Circuit remanded for further consideration. See: Alvarez v. Hill, 518 F3d 1152 (9th Cir. 2008).

On remand, the district court again granted prison officials summary judgment, dismissing the RLUIPA claims because: (1) money damages are not available against officials sued in their official capacity under RLUIPA, and (2) Alvarez's declaratory and injunctive relief claims were moot as a result of Alvarez's release from ODOC custody.

The Ninth Circuit first affirmed the dismissal of Alvarez's damage claims, noting that in Sossamon v. Texas, 131 SCt 1651 (2011), the Supreme Court concluded that sovereign immunity precludes damages against states under RLUIPA.

The Court also affirmed the lower court's mootness dismissal, finding that Alvarez was released from ODOC custody in 2007. "Without his damages claims, Alvarez no longer has a legally cognizable interest in the outcome of this case," the court concluded.

The court rejected Alvarez's argument that he could be returned to prison and subjected again to the challenged policies and conditions. "Because Alvarez has now completed his prison sentence and his term of post-incarceration supervision," the court noted that "the only way that he might be returned to ODOC custody is if he commits another crime." Of course, Alvarez is "able, and indeed is required by law, to prevent this from occurring." See: Alvarez v. Hill, 667 F3d 1061 (9th Cir. 2012)

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Alvarez v. Hill

Alvarez v. Hill