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Seventh Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Suit Over Denial of Ramadan Meals; $3,600 Settlement

by Matt Clarke

On January 4, 2016, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by a Muslim prisoner who was denied several sack meals during Ramadan.

Michael L. Thompson, incarcerated at the Waupun Correctional Institution in Wisconsin, filed a federal civil rights action alleging prison officials violated his First Amendment religious rights when they refused to give him sack meals during two days of Ramadan.

A central religious practice of Islam, Ramadan requires sunrise-to-sunset fasting during a month-long period. To accommodate that religious observance, the prison chaplain maintained a list of participating prisoners who were provided daily bags containing meals to be eaten after sunset and the following day before sunrise.

Thompson received his sack meals until mid-Ramadan, when guard Randall Lashock gave him a bag as he was returning to his cell, where he found another bag had already been delivered. Thereafter, the facts were disputed. Thompson said he left one bag unopened for the guard to retrieve while Lashock claimed he found Thompson eating from both of the bags. Thompson received no sack meals for the next two days, then began getting them again.

During the two days without food, Thompson was pressured by Sgts. Bruce Bleich and Matthew Larson to eat during daylight hours in the prison cafeteria, an action that would have resulted in his name being removed from the chaplain’s Ramadan list. They also told him that Captain William Holm had already removed his name from the list.

Lashock claimed he wrote a disciplinary report against Thompson, charging him with theft of the extra sack meal. However, the defendants could not produce the report; they filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted by the district court.

Thompson appealed and the Seventh Circuit reversed.

Resolving the disputed facts in favor of Thompson for summary judgment purposes, the Court of Appeals held a jury could find that his First Amendment rights had been violated. The Court noted the denial of the sack meals was a substantial burden on Thompson’s right to freely exercise his religion, forcing him to choose between adequate nutrition and violating a central tenant of his faith. That was more than a minimal burden. The 55 hours he spent without food left Thompson weak and tired, and he did not know if he would receive any further meal sacks – which caused anxiety, preventing him from achieving the peace and focus that is part of the Ramadan observance.

The appellate court also found the defendants were personally involved in imposing the burden on Thompson. Lashock was responsible for delivering the sack meals to eligible prisoners, while Bliech and Larson falsely told Thompson that he had been removed from the Ramadan list and pressured him to go to the cafeteria to eat. Further, the record supported an inference that the defendants had acted deliberately and Lashock had lied about Thompson eating the extra sack meal and having written a disciplinary report. Therefore, nominal and punitive damages were available.

Since a prisoner’s right to a diet consistent with his religious beliefs was clearly established, the defense of qualified immunity was unavailable. Accordingly, the Seventh Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded the case. The lawsuit settled shortly after the appellate ruling, with the defendants agreeing to pay $3,600 in damages; as part of the settlement, that payment “will not be subject to Wis. Stat. § 301.325 or any other pay-to-stay fee policy.” See: Thompson v. Holm, 809 F.3d 376 (7th Cir. 2016). 

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Related legal case

Thompson v. Holm