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Second Circuit: Continuing Violations Exhausted with Single Grievance

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals held on May 16, 2012 that a New York district court had incorrectly concluded that a prisoner failed to exhaust his administrative remedies before bringing a religious freedom suit.

Muslim prisoner Neil Johnson was confined at the Federal Correctional Institution in Otisville, New York (FCI Otisville). In 2005, an FCI Otisville policy limited congregational prayers to once a day. However, Johnson’s Islamic religious beliefs required group prayer five times daily.

In February 2005, Johnson exhausted an administrative grievance concerning the limitation on congregational prayer. Although prison officials denied the grievance, they coincidentally stopped enforcing the policy.

After a new warden took over at FCI Otisville in April 2007, the congregational prayer policy was reimplemented and consistently enforced, limiting Muslim prisoners to group prayer once a day, five days a week, in the facility’s chapel.

On April 12, 2007, Johnson and several other Muslim prisoners were performing congregational prayer in their housing unit when a guard stopped them. Johnson was threatened with disciplinary action if he continued to engage in group prayer in violation of institutional policy.

Johnson filed suit in federal court on July 24, 2007, alleging that the limitation on congregational prayer violated his rights under the First Amendment and Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). He also raised a retaliation claim. He had not, however, filed a new grievance challenging the renewed 2007 enforcement of the policy related to group prayer.

On April 21, 2009, the district court granted partial summary judgment to the defendants, finding that Johnson had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).

The Second Circuit reversed, holding “that Johnson’s 2005 grievance was sufficient to exhaust his administrative remedies with respect to the continuing limitations on congregational prayer at FCI Otisville.”

“Although the District Court and the defendants framed the action as concerning ‘a wholly different set of circumstances’ than those raised in the 2005 grievances,” the appellate court found “the issue that Johnson would have raised in 2007 – the inadequacy of the spaces and times allotted for congregational prayer – was identical to the issue he exhausted in 2005” (emphasis in original). Three other circuits had previously held that no further grievances were necessary under such circumstances. See, e.g., Parzyck v. Prison Health Servs., Inc., 627 F.3d 1215, 1219 (11th Cir. 2010); Howard v. Waide, 534 F.3d 1227, 1244 (10th Cir. 2008) [PLN, March 2010, p.47]; and Johnson v. Johnson, 385 F.3d 503, 521 (5th Cir. 2004) [PLN, April 2005, p.37].

The Court of Appeals made clear, however, that its “holding is necessarily limited to cases in which a prior grievance identifies a specific and continuing complaint that ultimately becomes the basis for a lawsuit.” See: Johnson v. Killian, 680 F.3d 234 (2d Cir. 2012). In general, prisoners should fully exhaust their administrative remedies with respect to all issues they plan to litigate.

Following remand, the district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss Johnson’s congregational prayer claims on January 9, 2013. The court held that his claims for declaratory and injunctive relief were moot because he had since been transferred to another facility, and as a pro se plaintiff he could not represent other prisoners as a class.

With respect to Johnson’s damages claims, the district court granted qualified immunity to the defendants “because it was not ‘clearly established’ in 2007 that Muslim inmates were entitled to participate in group prayer anywhere in the correctional facility, including in their housing units.” See: Johnson v. Killian, U.S.D.C. (S.D.N.Y.), Case No. 1:07-cv-06641-NRB; 2013 WL 103166.

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Related legal cases

Johnson v. Killian

Johnson v. Killian