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Muslim Georgia Prisoner Wins RLUIPA Reversal in 11th Circuit Over Vegetarian Meals

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in an unpublished opinion, reversed the dismissal of a Georgia prisoner’s First and Eighth Amendment damage claims that alleged he was denied a vegan diet that conformed to his Muslim religious beliefs.

While held at Valdosta State Prison (VSP) in 2015, prisoner Marquise Ali Robbins, filed a civil rights action asserting claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the First and Eight Amendments. Robbins alleged that he opted to receive VSP’s “restricted vegan meal,” which is intended to be consistent with the dictates of Islamic dietary rules.

Robbins asserted his diet contained insufficient “nutritional value,” “lacked sufficient calories” and contained only half the nutritional value as provided other prisoners. The district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the complaint, finding Robbins failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

On appeal, it was noted that Robbins was transferred from VSP to Hays State Prison. The Eleventh Circuit found this mooted all injunctive relief claims, so it affirmed dismissal of the claims under RLUIPA and the First and Eighth Amendment that sought such relief.

The court, however, found the First and Eighth Amendment damage claims were improperly dismissed. While the district court was correct that Robbins used labels and conclusions, such as describing the meals as “meager,” “at times inedible,” “diluted,” and “unwholesome,” he also made non-conclusionary allegations. He alleged that the meals lacked enough calories; that he could not eat the meals served on Saturday because they contained pork in the form of gelatin in the jelly of his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and that medical personnel were concerned enough that they prescribed vitamins and meal supplements. He also alleged the nutritionally inadequate diet caused symptoms of deteriorating health serious enough to warrant intervention by medical personnel.

The Eleventh Circuit found those allegations were sufficient enough to state a plausible claim that prison officials burdened Robbins’s First Amendment right to exercise his religious belief. The district court and defendants operated on the basis that if the complaint was insufficient to state a First Amendment claim, the Eighth Amendment claim was also not stated. The Eleventh Circuit operated on the same basis and reversed the dismissal of the Eighth Amendment claim. It made clear it was not making a judgment on that claim, for it found the subjective prion was met but left the objective prong of that claim to the district court to determine in the first instance.

The district court’s order was affirmed in part and reversed in part. See: Robbins v. Robertson, 782 Fed.Appx. 794 (11th Cir. 2019). 

Related legal case

Robbins v. Robertson