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Tenth Circuit: Individual Damage Claims Improper Under RLUIPA; Right Against Rastafarian Haircut Not Clearly Established

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's dismissal of a Kansas Rastafarian prisoner's constitutional and statutory challenges to a requirement that he comb out or cut his dreadlocks.

Sturgeon Stewart was a prisoner of the Kansas Department of Corrections (KDOC) confined at the El Dorado Correctional Facility. In accordance with his Rastafarian religious beliefs, he does not cut or comb his hair, which he keeps in dreadlocks.

Prison officials granted Stewart's request for a transfer to the Lansing Correctional Facility to be closer to his mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer.

On January 23, 2007, however, guard Agnes Beach refused to allow Stewart's transfer because he could not comb out his dreadlocks, as required by KDOC policy.

Beach's supervisor, Thad Wilson, gave Stewart the option of cutting his hair or skipping the transfer. Stewart explained that his religious beliefs forbid cutting his hair. He asked the guards to pat down his hair and use a metal detector to search for contraband instead.

Wilson denied Stewart's request, canceled the transfer and confined Stewart in administrative segregation. On January 30, 2007, Stewart filed a grievance, seeking a religious exception to the transfer policy.

When the grievance was denied, Stewart filed a February 5, 2007 appeal that was denied the same day. Stewart then cut off his dreadlocks and was transferred to Lansing on February 6, 2007.

Stewart then brought federal suit against Beach, Wilson and El Dorado Warden Ray Roberts. He alleged that forcing him to violate his religious beliefs to be transferred closer to his ailing mother violated his rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). He sought damages and a declaration that Defendants violated his rights.

The district court granted Defendants qualified immunity on the Free Exercise claim, finding they did not violate Stewart's clearly established rights. It also dismissed the RLUIPA claim, finding that damage claims against individual defendants are not cognizable under RLUIPA.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the grant of qualified immunity, because its survey of existing case law cut both ways, giving Defendants warning only that their policy might violate Stewart's rights. This was insufficient to hold that the law was clearly established, the court held.

The Tenth Circuit also affirmed dismissal of Stewart's RLUIPA claim, concluding that individual-capacity damage claims cannot be brought under RLUIPA. See: Stewart v. Beach, 701 F.3d 1322 (10th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

Stewart v. Beach