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$120,000 Paid to Muslim Detainees for Discrimination by Maryland Jail

by David M. Reutter

On March 31, 2023, the federal court for the District of Maryland granted dismissal to a suit by a former detainee at the Prince George’s County lockup, after he and co-Plaintiffs accepted a settlement resolving their claims that the county Department of Corrections (DOC) operated under an “Islam-specific policy,” singling out Muslim detainees for less-favorable treatment than that afforded to practitioners of other faiths.

While awaiting transfer to the state Department of Public Safety, Enrico Brown said that he and other Muslims detained at the Prince George’s County Detention Center were prohibited from performing religious services, engaging in daily congregational prayers, wearing religious headwear or other clothing items, receiving certain mail and even accessing a Kosher meal.

Brown’s handwritten complaint was filed pro se with the Court in July 2019, a year and a half after attorneys with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington, DC, filed suit on behalf of another group of jail detainees making similar claims. Those lawyers then took on Brown’s case and filed an amended complaint for him in 2020. As the group argued, the jail didn’t allow Muslims to congregate in small groups for prayer, a privilege it extended to Christians. There was also no rule against gathering in small groups for sports or non-religious activities.

After DOC agreed to amend its policy in 2020, it moved to dismiss Brown’s complaint. One defendant, a chaplain named Romero, alternatively moved for summary judgment.

When the Court ruled on March 31, 2022, it first addressed the issue of whether Brown had to prove a physical injury or the commission of a sexual act to sue under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. That law bars a prisoner from bringing an action “for mental or emotional injury” without first making such a showing. But Brown alleged violations of his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, the Court noted, and he sought nominal and punitive damages. As violation of these rights is not mental or emotional injury, Brown did not need physical injury or commission of a sex act, the Court declared.

Next, the Court held that Brown’s claim for monetary damages was not mooted by his tranfer to state prison. It also said that monetary damages were available under the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act (RLUIPA), noting that Brown did not sue defendants in their individual capacity; that is barred by Sossaman v. Texas, 563 U.S. 277 (2011), which held that monetary damages are not available in a RLUIPA lawsuit against a sovereign, meaning a state and its officials.

However, the Court continued, Sossaman, “does not stand for the general proposition that money damages are categorically unavailable under RLUIPA, particularly when they are sought against a governmental entity, such as a county, that is subordinate to a sovereign state.” A sister law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, provides for the award of “appropriate relief,” the Court noted, which may include money damages, per Tanzin v. Tanvir, 141 S. Ct. 486 (2020). As there is no case law to the contrary, the Court denied the County’s motion to dismiss the RLUIPA damage claim.

The Court also found evidence showing Romero could authorize Kosher meals for Brown but refused to do so. Therefore Romero’s motion for summary judgment was denied, and Defendants were ordered to file answers to the Complaint. See: Brown v. Prince George’s Cty., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 62327 (D. Md.).

The parties then proceeded to reach their settlement agreement, which included payment of $120,000 to Brown, his attorneys and co-Plaintiffs from CAIR’s other suit: Kenneth Snowden, Duran Carrington, Michael Harris, David Francis, Darnell Munden and Kevin Stewart. See: Brown v. Prince George’s Cty., USDC (D. Md.), Case No. 8:19-cv-1988; and Snowden v. Prince George’s Cty., USDC (D. Md.), Case No. 8:18-cv-00160.

CAIR file a third case against the jail over the job application for chaplain, a position the county contracts to a private group, Prison Ministry of America (PMA). When a local imam named Edrees Bridges contacted the jail about its open chaplain slot, he was directed to PMA, only to find the group would require him to sign a statement of his faith that “Jesus Christ, God’s son, was conceived by the Holy Spirit” and that the Bible is “God’s authoritative and inspired word.” That case is still pending, and PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Bridges v. Prince George’s Cty., USDC (D. Md.), Case No. 8:21-cv-01319.