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Ninth Circuit: Prisoner’s Disciplinary Appeal Exhausted Claim of Having to Work on Religious Holiday

by Christopher Zoukis

On May 18, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s order dismissing a prisoner’s complaint for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The Ninth Circuit held the prisoner’s claim, which alleged a violation of his right to religious liberty under the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), could proceed.

Michael Ray Fuqua, a Christian prisoner held in an Arizona state prison, was scheduled to work in the kitchen on September 24, 2014, a religious holiday. When he learned of the schedule, which would require him to work on the Feast of Trumpets, he wrote a letter outlining his concerns and offering to switch shifts or pick up other shifts to cover the day off. Fuqua tried to give the letter to Sergeant Starnes, who told him “we don’t do that shit here” and refused to accept the letter.

The day before the holiday, Fuqua spoke with kitchen manager Clark about the issue. Clark told him to “do what you have to do,” but warned that Fuqua “will not have a job here” if he didn’t show up on the religious holiday. The day of the holiday, Fuqua submitted another letter, this time to a guard. He said he “want[ed] to work” and “[did] not want to get fired because I have to choose between my God’s laws and [Arizona DOC]’s rules.”

Prison officials refused to give him the day off, and when Fuqua did not report to work on the holiday he was fired and issued a disciplinary infraction. He was found guilty and received “five days of disciplinary detention, 30 hours of extra duty, and 30 days loss of privileges.”

After unsuccessfully appealing, Fuqua filed suit in federal court. The district court dismissed his due process claims and several of the defendants; the remaining defendants then moved for summary judgment, arguing he had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). They claimed that Fuqua’s appeal of his disciplinary infraction wasn’t enough, and said he also needed to exhaust the grievance process. The district court agreed but the Ninth Circuit reversed on appeal.

The lower court’s decision was based on a reading of PLRA exhaustion requirements that emphasize form over substance. The court reasoned that since the Arizona DOC has both a grievance system and a disciplinary appeal system, Fuqua’s religious claims could only be properly addressed and exhausted through the grievance process.

From a substantive perspective, it was clear to the Court of Appeals that “[t]here was nothing ambiguous about Fuqua’s request; defendants were clearly on notice of the relief he sought.” The Ninth Circuit concluded that based on the record in this case, ‘“the purposes of the PLRA exhaustion requirement have been fully served’” by Fuqua’s disciplinary appeal.

John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute and a constitutional law attorney, told Cronkite News that the appellate court had properly denied the state’s attempt to use procedural hurdles to trip up a prisoner with a legitimate claim of interference with religious freedoms.

“A prisoner should be able to go to court to assert his fundamental rights if prison authorities have had a chance to review his claim and have rejected it,” Whitehead said. “A prisoner should not have to repeatedly present the claim to prison officials simply because there is an additional administrative review process.”

The case remains pending on remand. See: Fuqua v. Ryan, 890 F.3d 838 (9th Cir. 2018). 

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Related legal case

Fuqua v. Ryan