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Eleventh Circuit: Expiration of Preliminary Injunction Moots Appeal

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed as moot an appeal by the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) that challenged a preliminary injunction regulating its provision of kosher meals to prisoners. The appellate court also vacated orders by the district court that clarified its injunction.

As previously reported in PLN, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sued the FDOC to force it to provide kosher meals to prisoners with religious dietary requirements. After the FDOC’s motion to dismiss was denied, it implemented a “Religious Diet Program” with restrictive provisions. The DOJ moved for an injunction requiring the FDOC to provide a “kosher diet to all prisoners with a sincere religious basis for keeping kosher” and to prohibit prison officials from implementing its “new Religious Diet Program to the extent it violates RLUIPA” – the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The district court granted the motion in 2013 and entered an order that detailed procedures for the FDOC to follow when providing prisoners with kosher meals. [See: PLN, May 2014, p.14].

That order, however, did not mention the “need-narrowness-intrusiveness criteria for preliminary injunctions established by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).” The district court also failed to enter an order finalizing its preliminary injunction.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit noted that while the parties did not raise a mootness claim, it had an obligation to address and decide that issue. The relevant question was, “If a preliminary injunction expires automatically by operation of statute, and none of the parties notice, does it moot the interlocutory appeal challenging that injunction?”

The Court of Appeal’s decision began by reciting the vastness of federal law, which has “multiplied to become ‘beyond number, like the stars in the sky and the sand in the seashore.’” The Court wrote that “like the proverbial tree, if an issue falls in the forest of federal law, courts must take notice of the sound even if the parties did not hear it.”

Lawsuits challenging prison conditions under RLUIPA are governed by the PLRA. Among its provisions, the PLRA provides that “preliminary injunctive relief shall automatically expire on the date that is 90 days after its entry” unless the district court makes findings required under 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(1) and makes “the order final before the expiration of the 90-day period.”

In this case the district court did neither, thus its preliminary injunction order expired 90 days after it was entered. While the court held monthly status conferences and issued orders clarifying its injunction, it failed to make the required findings under the PLRA or finalize its order. As such, the Eleventh Circuit dismissed the appeal as moot and vacated the district court’s orders clarifying the preliminary injunction. See: United States v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections, 778 F.3d 1223 (11th Cir. 2015). 

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Related legal case

United States v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections