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Eighth Circuit: § 1997e(e) Bars Compensatory Damages for First Amendment Religious Claims; Qualified Immunity Upheld

Eighth Circuit: § 1997e(e) Bars Compensatory Damages for First Amendment Religious Claims; Qualified Immunity Upheld

On March 19, 2012, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e) bars compensatory damages for a South Dakota prisoner’s exercise of religious freedom claims. The appellate court also found that prison officials were entitled to qualified immunity.

“‘Sukkot is a Jewish religious festival of thanksgiving celebrated originally as an autumn harvest festival that is commemorative of the temporary shelters of the Jews during their wandering in the wilderness,’” the appellate court noted. During observance of Sukkot, adherents of the Jewish faith eat their meals or reside outdoors in a small three-sided tent or booth called a succah. The South Dakota State Penitentiary (SDSP) owned a donated succah consisting “of a metal frame and poles that were covered on three sides by a canvas tarp. This succah was a temporary structure and was large enough to accommodate only one person.”

On four occasions from 2003 to 2006, Jewish prisoner Charles E. Sisney asked “to erect the donated succah in the SDSP prison yard and to eat his meals inside that succah. In the alternative, Sisney requested that he be allowed extra time in the recreation yard at sundown to recite a special benediction.” SDSP officials denied his requests.

Sisney then filed a federal civil rights suit against SDSP officials, alleging that their denials violated his First Amendment religious rights; he sought damages for those violations.

The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, holding first that 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e) of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) barred Sisney from recovering compensatory damages because he did not allege a physical injury. Although punitive damages for First Amendment violations are available under § 1997e(e), the court found no basis for awarding such damages in this case. The district court further held that the SDSP “officials were entitled to qualified immunity, because Sisney had failed to cite ‘any case law that is similar enough to the denial of the use of a Sukkot Booth to find that a reasonable official would have understood such a denial violated Sisney’s First Amendment rights to exercise his religion.’”

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit first observed that it had previously held in Royal v. Kautzky, 375 F.3d 720, 723 (8th Cir. 2004) [PLN, April 2006, p.24] that § 1997e(e) bars compensatory damages for First Amendment violations. The appellate court rejected Sisney’s request to reconsider its ruling in Royal, citing the “cardinal rule” that “one panel is bound by the decision of a prior panel.”

The Court of Appeals also affirmed the district court’s grant of qualified immunity to the defendants, as it was not clearly established that the denial of Sisney’s requests constituted a violation of his First Amendment rights.

In a footnote, however, the Eighth Circuit noted that Sisney had raised “numerous other constitutional and statutory claims, including claims under ... the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc–1(a).” Those claims were either dismissed or settled, and thus were not raised on appeal. “In addition,” the appellate court wrote, “we are informed by the [defendants] that under the parties’ settlement, Sisney may now purchase and use a succah, subject to certain safety and security requirements.” See: Sisney v. Reisch, 674 F.3d 839 (8th Cir. 2012), cert. denied.

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