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Preliminary Injunction Granted to Illinois Prisoner to Receive Non-Allergenic Kosher Meals

by David M. Reutter

An Illinois federal district court issued a preliminary injunction in favor of a state prisoner on October 12, 2021, requiring prison officials to provide him fresh or frozen kosher meal entrées because he suffers an allergic reaction to those provided, which are “shelf-stable.”

The prisoner, Mark Anderson, filed suit pro se in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois on February 18, 2021, after the state Department of Corrections (DOC) refused to accommodate his request for an alternative kosher meal without first having proof that he was allergic to what was offered and DOC’s healthcare contractor, Wexford Health Sources, refused to provide allergy testing that would provide that proof.

After screening the complaint, the Court recruited counsel for Anderson from Chicago attorneys Alexander S. Vesselinovitch and D. Richard Self, who is with Freeborn & Peters, LLP. On behalf of their client, they filed an amended complaint accusing DOC of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and Anderson’s First Amendment right to freely exercise his religion. The complaint also asserted an Eighth Amendment right to receive nutritionally adequate food from DOC officials, accusing them and Wexford also of deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs.

Anderson moved for a preliminary injunction to require DOC to provide a kosher diet “that satisfies basic nutritional standards” and “to which he is not allergic … until the results of that allergy testing can be confirmed and [his] allergy can be accommodated” by DOC.

There was no dispute that Anderson’s sincerely held Jewish beliefs require him to eat a kosher diet. The problem is that he allegedly suffered allergic reactions whenever he ate the Meal Mart brand “shelf-stable” entrée meals that DOC provided, leaving him to “subsist on a daily diet made up primarily of matzoh, lettuce, and fruit.”

Given Anderson’s claimed allergic reaction, the Court said the question it faced was whether DOC’s failure to provide him “other” brands of kosher meals substantially burdens his ability to exercise his faith. Anderson, the Court concluded, satisfied that burden.

There was no evidence that Anderson did not suffer allergic reactions whenever he ate a Meal Mart shelf-stable entrée. Wexford also refused to authorize a test to confirm the allergy, telling Anderson instead simply to avoid foods that cause allergic reactions. The Court rejected DOC’s argument that the lack of an allergy test should be held against Anderson because “an allergy does not need to be confirmed by an allergy test to exist in the first place.”

The Court also rejected DOC’s attempt to reframe Anderson’s complaint as “a medical issue, not a religious issue.” While Anderson’s physical reaction to the meals adds a medical element, “it does not negate the ultimate religious nature of his complaint,” the Court said.

Instead, it said that Defendants present the prisoner a Hobson’s choice: (1) eat non-kosher meals and violate his sincerely held beliefs; (2) eat the shelf-stable meals and suffer the resulting “pain, discomfort, swelling, and trouble breathing”; or (3) “forgo both” and “subsist on a daily diet consisting primarily of lettuce, bread (or matzoh), and a few pieces of fruit, supplemented at times by purchases from the commissary.”

This, the Court concluded, is “precisely the type of pressure that substantially burdens the free exercise of [Anderson’s] religious practice.”

While finding Anderson is likely to succeed on his RLUIPA claim, the Court said he would likely fail to do so on his Eighth Amendment claim for deprivation of a nutritionally adequate diet. But that was enough, for the Court then found Anderson met all the other requirements to be granted a preliminary injunction.

DOC was ordered to provide Anderson daily lunch and dinner entrée portions of frozen kosher meal brands previously provided Anderson without his suffering an allergic reaction. See: Anderson v. Larry, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 196116 (N.D. Ill.).

Meanwhile Wexford approved the allergy testing, reporting to the Court on October 4, 2021, that it was scheduled “in the next few weeks.” After that, the Court granted Anderson leave to file an amended complaint terminating the firm as a defendant.

Anderson was then released from DOC custody, and the Court dissolved its preliminary injunction on February 25, 2022. The case remains pending. See: Anderson v. Jeffreys, USDC (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 21-cv-00944. 

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