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Eighth Circuit Reverses District Court’s Order Requiring Halal Meals

by Chad Marks

Abdulhakim Muhammad, a state prisoner in Arkansas, filed suit under the First and Fourteenth Amendments and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000 cc-1 to 2000 cc-5. He argued that the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC) refused to provide him with a daily serving of halal meat in accordance with his Muslim religious beliefs.

The federal district court held a bench trial and granted an injunction in favor of Muhammad in May 2018. The court ordered prison officials to provide him with one serving of fish three or four days per week and one serving of halal or kosher beef, chicken or turkey the other three to four days a week.

The defendants appealed, arguing that Muhammad failed to exhaust his administrative remedies and that the district court erred on his RLUIPA and Free Exercise claims, as well as the scope of injunctive relief.

In an August 13, 2019 ruling, the Eighth Circuit agreed that Muhammad had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. As a result, the appellate court did not reach the issue of whether the ADC had violated his rights under RLUIPA and the Free Exercise Clause.

The Court of Appeals cited 42 U.S.C. § 1997 e(a), which specifies that “[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under ... any ... Federal law, by a prisoner confined in any ... correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.” The U.S. Supreme Court has explained that the exhaustion requirement is “mandatory,” in Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81 (2006) [PLN, Sept. 2006, p.40].

The appellate court first looked to see if and what administrative remedies were available to Muhammad. In Ross v. Blake, 136 S.Ct. 1850 (2016) [PLN, July 2016, p.22], the Supreme Court held that “[a]n inmate ... must exhaust available remedies, but need not exhaust unavailable ones.”

In Muhammad’s case, the Eighth Circuit determined that administrative remedies were available in the form of the grievance process, and considered whether or not he had exhausted them. Muhammad argued that the ADC’s administrative remedies were a “dead end,” because there was no possibility of filing a grievance to obtain halal meat. The appellate court held that was not the correct test. Rather, the PLRA requires exhaustion of “such administrative remedies as are available.” Citing Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731 (2001) [PLN, June 2002, p.17], the appellate court recognized that as long as “the administrative process has authority to take some action in response to a complaint, [even if] not the remedial action an inmate demands,” administrative remedies are considered “available.”

Muhammad noted that he had submitted three accommodation requests to the ADC’s chaplain under a procedure to request “special religious diet[s]” pursuant to the prison system’s Religious Diet Policy. He also filed four grievances regarding religious meals, but only fully exhausted the process for two of the grievances, and none dealt with the specific issue of receiving daily halal meat.

The Court of Appeals rejected Muhammad’s arguments, finding he did not properly exhaust his available administrative remedies because his accommodation requests sent to the chaplain were insufficient and he did not exhaust the grievance process as to the issue of daily halal meats.

“Nothing in the Religious Diet Policy indicates it is a grievance procedure rather than (or in addition to) a vehicle for requesting religious-diet accommodations to the chaplain,” the Court wrote.

Accordingly, the Eighth Circuit reversed the judgment of the district court and remanded with instructions to dismiss the case without prejudice. See: Muhammad v. Mayfield, 933 F.3d 993 (8th Cir. 2019). 

Related legal case

Muhammad v. Mayfield