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Sixth Circuit: Michigan DOC’s Years-Long Delay in Access to Religious Services and Items Constitutes Constructive Denial of Religious Exercise

by Jacob Barrett

On November 9, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that a six-year delay in replying to a Michigan prisoner’s request for religious services was not merely an administrative problem for the state Department of Corrections (DOC) but instead amounted to a substantive denial of religious exercise, in violation of the federal constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

After his conversion to the Ifá faith in August 2015, prisoner Robert Byrd asked DOC to allow him group worship and certain religious items. (Ifá is a spiritual practice with roots in Yorubaland, a region that includes areas in the African nations of Benin, Togo and Ghana and parts of Nigeria, the practice of which predates Christianity by thousands of years.) Byrd sent four requests for group services and nine items, including a straw mat for prayer, herbs and beads. In response he heard nothing at all for two years.

Byrd then filed suit in federal court for the Eastern District of Michigan, accusing DOC officials of violating his rights under RLUIPA as well as the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment and the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The district court granted Defendants qualified immunity on Byrd’s constitutional claims. In addition, his RLUIPA claims were declared moot against two officials who had retired, and the remaining official was granted summary judgment on Byrd’s last RLUIPA claim.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit said that “[i]n this case, framing is everything.” Byrd framed his case as DOC’s “outright refusal to even consider a legitimate request for religious accommodation, the de facto perpetual denial of which left [him] unable to practice his religion.” DOC, on the other hand, downplayed Byrd’s multi-year saga as “a minor breakdown of protocol” which didn’t rise to the level of a constitutional violation.

The district court had accepted DOC’s framing, finding the delay in replying to Byrd’s requests was little more than “either an isolated incident or the result of confusion or miscommunication.” It didn’t dismiss the case for failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). Rather it accepted DOC’s contention that no answer was not the same as a “no” answer.

On review the Sixth Circuit said “that framing is wrong.” Instead the Court focused on another question: “Do prison officials violate inmates’ Free Exercise rights when they do not approve group religious services or expansions of personal religious property through an appropriate process?”

In short, the answer is “yes.”

If Jewish prisoners asked for Yom Kippur services that DOC didn’t want to provide, the Court offered, officials would merely have to wait for the holiday to pass to moot their request. But “a government agency cannot simply end-run judicial review by sitting on its hands and allowing a claimant’s request to languish in a bureaucratic black hole.”

Moreover, DOC would lose under its own framing of the issue, since a prisoner’s administrative remedies “are exhausted when prison officials fail to timely respond to a properly filed grievance,” the Court said, citing Haight v. Thompson, 763 F.3d 554 (6th Cir. 2014). Byrd “took every conceivable action to pursue his claim,” yet Defendants “left him in the dark” for years, and that “multi-year failure amounted to an outright denial of Byrd’s requests.”

This was the sort of constructive denial the Court previously found in Overlook Mutual Homes, Inc. v. Spencer, 415 Fed.App’x. 617 (6th Cir. 2011), where a housing provider’s “unreasonabl[e] delays responding to a request for an accommodation . . . may amount to a denial.” But the Court added that “constructive denials are—and should remain—rare,” recognized only in “an unusual case such as [Byrd’s].”

Returning to the framing issue, the Court said “context” provides a “guidepost” in construing a constructive denial, considering the “the length of the delay, any reasonable justification for the delay, and the nature of the interest involved.” Each consideration, though, “militates in Byrd’s favor,” the Court found.

In fact, an answer to his request still hadn’t arrived nearly six years later, when it finally appeared just months before the Court heard his appeal! In the meantime, the Court noted, Byrd had been deprived of religious property and group services he believed were necessary for his faith.

As a result, DOC’s “extreme delay constructively denied Byrd’s requests,” the Court concluded, so his RLUIPA and constitutional claims “must therefore be analyzed through that lens.” It reversed the district court’s judgment and remanded the case. See: Byrd v. Haas, 17 F.4th 692 (6th Cir. 2021).

The district court reopened the case on January 5, 2022, where it remains pending. Byrd is represented by attorneys Jeffrey Alan Crapko and Morgan Lear of Miller Canfield Paddock and Stone PLC in Detroit. See: Byrd v. Haas, USDC (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 2:17-cv-11427. 

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Byrd v. Haas

Byrd v. Haas