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Fourth Circuit Reinstates Prisoner’s Lawsuit Over Denial of Rastafarian Services

by Matthew Clarke

On December 5, 2017, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in part the dismissal of a prisoner’s lawsuit challenging the denial of Rastafarian group religious services at a North Carolina state prison.

Torrey F. Wilcox is an adherent of the Rastafarian faith incarcerated at the Marion Correctional Institution (MCI). Superintendent Dwayne Terrell and Assistant Superintendent of Programs Randy Teague suspended Rastafarian services at MCI, citing lack of a staff chaplain. They refused to provide certified non-custodial staff to monitor the group service even though that had been done for other religious groups. Wilcox filed a grievance challenging the discontinuation of services and exhausted his administrative appeals. The response to his initial grievance said the Office of Religious Services, headed by Betty Brown, had authorized Terrell and Teague to suspend Rastafarian services.

About two months after the suspension, MCI hired Chaplain Menhinick. Menhinick initially told Wilcox that the services would be restarted, but later informed him that “Terrell had made an executive decision not to open the Rastafarian worship service.” Wilcox filed a federal civil rights suit against Brown, Terrell, Teague and Chaplain Menhinick.

In performing the PLRA screening pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b), the district court dismissed the claims against Menhinick because he could not be held liable for merely following Terrell’s orders not to resume services. It dismissed the remaining claims as Wilcox had not exhausted his administrative remedies by filing another grievance complaining of the failure to resume services after Menhinick was hired. Wilcox appealed.

The Fourth Circuit noted that failure to exhaust administrative remedies was not a proper basis for dismissal during screening because it is an affirmative defense that must be raised by the defendants. Additionally, the appellate court held that Wilcox was not required to file another grievance after Menhinick was hired and Rastafarian services were not resumed. His initial grievance was adequate to inform prison officials of the problem and allow them to address it prior to litigation; thus, it fulfilled the purpose of the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement.

The district court’s analysis of Wilcox’s complaint erroneously stated that he had not claimed group services were a required component of his observation of the Sabbath. In fact, he had said Sabbath worship required group services, and he was not required to plead the theological underpinnings of his religious requirements. He sufficiently alleged the suspension of services had substantially burdened his religious practice; any further analysis of his pleadings at the screening stage was premature.

The Court of Appeals also held the PLRA allowed recovery of compensatory damages for First Amendment violations without the necessity of showing physical injury. The Court noted that in Piver v. Pender Cty. Bd. of Educ., 835 F.2d 1076 (4th Cir. 1987), it had already held that an “injury to a protected First Amendment interest can itself constitute compensable injury.” In doing so, it came down on the prisoners’ side of a five-five circuit split as to whether prisoners can recover compensatory damages for First Amendment violations.

The Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court that Menhinick could not be held liable. It therefore reversed the dismissal of the complaint except as to Menhinick and remanded the case for further proceedings. The case remains pending on remand, where the district court denied Wilcox’s motion to appoint counsel on May 15, 2018. See: Wilcox v. Brown, 877 F.3d 161 (4th Cir. 2017). 


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Related legal case

Wilcox v. Brown