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Ninth Circuit Reinstates Wiccan Prisoner’s Consent Decree

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has sharply criticized a district court’s handling of a Wiccan prisoner’s lawsuit, and reinstated a longstanding consent decree in the case.

In 1993, California state prisoner William Rouser filed suit on behalf of himself and thirty other prisoners, seeking to compel prison officials to recognize Wicca as a religion and afford it the same religious freedoms that other faiths enjoy within the prison system. The parties entered into a comprehensive settlement agreement in 1997 that afforded Rouser numerous religious accommodations. Yet prison officials repeatedly violated the agreement over the ensuing fourteen years.

The district court issued a preliminary injunction in 2010, finding that prison officials had substantially burdened Rouser’s religious exercise. The parties then entered into a 2011 consent decree, reaffirming the state’s obligations under the 1997 settlement agreement and providing Rouser additional relief. The decree allowed the defendants to move to terminate it after one year upon a showing of substantial compliance.

Soon after the 2011 decree became effective, Rouser again moved to enforce its terms and for a second preliminary injunction. He argued that prison officials violated the decree in at least five aspects. The defendants denied or attempted to justify some of the violations, but “all but conceded” others.

The district court found prison officials had violated the decree in two ways. Despite Rouser’s sworn declaration, however, the court faulted him for offering insufficient evidence to prove noncompliance on the other three issues. The court “tacitly resolved ... factual disputes in favor of defendants without an evidentiary hearing or even an acknowledgement that Rouser had presented contrary evidence.”

Three months later the defendants moved to vacate the consent decree. They relied on a declaration of a prison counselor who claimed that prison officials had “fully complied” with the decree, but discussed only some of its terms, said nothing about compliance with other terms and did not claim the defendants had remedied the two violations the district court had found. The counselor also relied on an internal prison memo that predated the court’s finding that the decree had been violated. Rouser disputed the claim of substantial compliance and moved for an evidentiary hearing, but the court denied his motion without a hearing or oral argument.

“Defendants have demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that they have substantially complied with the terms of the settlement agreement,” the district court stated in a minute order. It did not mention its earlier finding that the defendants had violated the consent decree. The court held the defendants showed substantial compliance, because they “took ‘significant steps to follow the settlement agreement.’”

Rouser appealed and the Ninth Circuit reversed in a lengthy decision, holding that the district court failed to comply with Jeff D. v. Otter, 643 F.3d 278 (9th Cir. 2011). “Nowhere in its terse minute order did it mention the defendants’ record of compliance – either with the 2011 Decree or its predecessor – ‘which over the course of the litigation has been far from exemplary,’” the appellate court observed. “Nor did it analyze whether the purposes of the 2011 Decree had been ‘adequately served’ by defendants.”

“This alone provides sufficient grounds for reversing the order vacating the decree,” the Court of Appeals held. “But there’s much more.”

First, the district court abused its discretion by failing to evaluate whether the defendants had substantially complied with each term of the decree.

“Like terms in a contract, distinct provisions of consent decrees are independent obligations, each of which must be satisfied before there can be a finding of substantial compliance,” the Ninth Circuit wrote. “Courts don’t release parties from a consent decree unless they have substantially complied with every one of its provisions.”

Second, the district court “erred by applying the wrong legal standard for substantial compliance,” the Court of Appeals concluded. “Merely taking significant steps toward implementing the decree falls far short of ‘substantial compliance.’”

Third, the record contained insufficient “evidence to permit the district court to conclude that defendants met the substantial-compliance standard.” The district court’s “conclusion that there has been substantial compliance rested on a ‘clearly erroneous finding of material fact,’” given the “uncontested record of violations and the absence of any evidence that the deficient performance had been remedied.”

Fourth, the “defendants failed to establish altogether that they complied with several action items in the 2011 Decree,” the appellate court found. “We don’t know, because defendants presented no evidence and the district court made no findings as to these terms of the 2011 Decree. There is no indication that the district court was aware of these terms when it entered its order.”

Fifth, the district court ignored the claims that Rouser disputed. “If true, Rouser’s allegations would have documented material noncompliance with the terms of the decree and thus precluded any finding of substantial compliance.” Therefore, the court “should have – but didn’t – conduct a hearing before deciding material factual disputes related to defendants’ compliance with the decree.”

Finally, although Rouser had notified the district court of his change of address, court staff failed to update their records, resulting in almost two dozen court orders being returned as undeliverable over the course of two years. “But nobody bothered to correct the service address or resend the court’s orders to Rouser,” the Ninth Circuit noted.

Criticizing the district court’s “cavalier response once it finally realized that Rouser had not been receiving its orders,” the Court of Appeals expressed “doubts as to whether the judge or anyone else paid sufficient attention to Rouser’s pleadings. Because of this failure, Rouser was denied a fair opportunity to contest defendants’ motion to terminate the decree.”

The district court’s indifference was sharply criticized. “Bluntly stated, the record ... casts doubt on whether anyone in the Central District of California’s Clerk’s Office is paying attention to the important and sensitive process of providing parties with fair notice of the court’s orders,” the appellate court wrote.

“How can it be that the district court failed to implement the change of address for the delivery of orders after granting Rouser’s motion to proceed pro se, and then ignored almost two dozen orders that were returned to the court as undeliverable? Is the problem we note here limited to this case or does it reflect an absence of procedures designed to prevent and correct such errors in other cases?” The Ninth Circuit said it was “inconceivable that a properly run clerk’s office would permit this to go on over the course of years.”

One appellate judge issued an extensive dissenting opinion.

The case remains pending; based on the harsh criticism levied by the Court of Appeals, on remand Rouser filed a recusal motion with the district court judge – which was denied. See: Rouser v. White, 825 F.3d 1076 (9th Cir. 2016). 

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Related legal case

Rouser v. White