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Fifth Circuit Vacates Dismissal of Texas Grooming Policy RLUIPA Claim

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has reversed the dismissal of a challenge to a prison grooming policy filed by Native American prisoners.

Texas state prisoners Teddy Norris Davis and Robbie Dow Goodman alleged their religious freedoms had been curtailed by TDCJ policies related to pipe ceremonies, medicine bags and hair length restrictions.

Davis and Goodman brought federal suit alleging First Amendment, Equal Protection and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) claims. They argued that the challenged TDCJ policies burdened the exercise of their religious beliefs by preventing them from: 1) smoking a prayer pipe during Native American ceremonies; 2) wearing a religiously significant “medicine bag” outside their cells; and 3) growing long hair or alternatively a kouplock, which is “a one inch square section of hair at the base of the skull.”

The district court found that both plaintiffs were sincere practitioners of the Native American faith and that the policies imposed a substantial burden on their religious exercise. Nevertheless, the court granted summary judgment to the TDCJ, finding it had demonstrated the policies were the least restrictive means of furthering compelling governmental interests related to prison security. Goodman and Davis appealed.

The Fifth Circuit vacated the summary judgment order with respect to the plaintiffs’ RLUIPA grooming policy claims. Reversal was warranted because the record did not reflect whether appropriate consideration had been given to the summary judgment evidence.

Davis and Goodman attempted to present evidence on summary judgment by retyping or referencing portions of a TDCJ official’s testimony and the expert testimony of former prison official George Sullivan from an earlier bench trial in another Native American prisoner’s challenge to the TDCJ’s grooming policy. The TDCJ had argued in its reply that the plaintiffs’ evidence should be stricken.

“The district court’s opinion on summary judgment does not reflect what consideration, if any, was given to Plaintiffs’ summary judgment evidence,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “The current record does not reflect whether the Magistrate Judge considered Plaintiffs’ evidence and drew reasonable inferences in their favor, as required in deciding a motion for summary judgment.”

Moreover, “there is a need for further findings under the standard for evaluating RLUIPA claims as discussed in Holt v. Hobbs, 135 S.Ct. 853, 864 (2015),” the Court added. “In light of Holt, TDCJ’s asserted compelling interests must be examined in light of the particular characteristics of each Plaintiff, including their alleged low security risk status and the particular risks of the specific exemption requested.”

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the summary judgment order as to the plaintiffs’ First Amendment claims and claims related to pipe ceremonies and medicine bags. See: Davis v. Davis, 826 F.3d 258 (5th Cir. 2016).

Following remand, the district court revisited the summary judgment evidence and denied the TDCJ’s motion on March 7, 2017. The court found that Sullivan’s expert testimony from the prior unrelated case should be admitted, holding the TDCJ had “failed to offer any evidence to refute the reliability of Mr. Sullivan’s expertise.” After examining the plaintiffs’ security classifications and disciplinary histories, the court found they were not precluded from pursuing their RLUIPA challenge to the TDCJ’s grooming policy due to security reasons, and the case should be set for trial.

The suit remains pending; Goodman and Davis are proceeding pro se. See: Davis v. Davis, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31944 (S.D. Tex. 2017). 

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Related legal case

Davis v. Davis