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Seventh Circuit Reinstates Illinois Prisoner’s Religious Rights Suit

by Lonnie Burton

On October 17, 2016, the Seventh Circuit granted the appeal of an Illinois state prisoner who had sued for violations of his religious rights. The appellate court held that a previous claim he had filed in state court based on the same set of facts did not bar his federal lawsuit.

In July 2010, prisoner Donald L. McDonald filed suit in the Illinois Court of Claims against officials at the Stateville Correctional Center for violations of his First Amendment right to free exercise of his Muslim faith. McDonald alleged that Muslim prisoners at Stateville were not allowed to attend Friday prayer service, that prison officials regularly stole prayer rugs and Arabic cassette tapes, and that Christians were permitted to have more volunteers enter the prison than Muslims.

The Court of Claims held a hearing but then failed to issue a decision for over two years. Meanwhile, McDonald filed suit in federal district court in March 2013, alleging the same violations. Three months later the Court of Claims finally issued a terse two-page decision dismissing McDonald’s suit that addressed only one of his claims, holding that Muslim services occurred every Friday at Stateville unless the facility was on lockdown.

Prison officials then moved to dismiss McDonald’s federal case, arguing it was barred by res judicata. The district court granted the motion and McDonald appealed.

On appeal, however, the State of Illinois conceded the federal suit was not, in fact, barred under res judicata, and the Seventh Circuit agreed. The Court of Appeals found that Illinois law affords “preclusive effect only to a final judgment rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction.” Because it lacked jurisdiction to consider claims raised under a federal statute or the federal or state constitutions, the Court of Claims was “not a ‘court’ within the meaning of article VI of the Illinois Constitution of 1970,” the appellate court wrote.

As the Court of Claims was not considered a court of competent jurisdiction, an adverse judgment in that court did not bar a subsequent Section 1983 claim filed in federal court based on the same facts.

Prison officials also raised the defense of collateral estoppel, or issue preclusion, for the first time on appeal, which would bar relitigation of three of McDonald’s claims. However, the Seventh Circuit refused to consider that defense because it had not been raised at the district court level.

“We will not affirm a judgment based on an affirmative defense raised for the first time on appeal,” the Seventh Circuit concluded, reversing and remanding for further proceedings. The case remains pending before the district court. See: McDonald v. Adamson, 840 F.3d 343 (7th Cir. 2016).  

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Related legal case

McDonald v. Adamson