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Third Circuit Unhappy with Federal Detainee’s Denied Marriage Request at Pennsylvania GEO Group Lockup

On September 19, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit revived a claim by Brian Davis, a Jamaican national held for four years at Pennsylvania’s Moshannon Valley Correctional Center (MVCC). The prison is privately operated by the Florida-­based GEO Group, Inc., primarily housing low security noncitizens for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

While there, Davis requested to wed his fiancée, Fredricka Beckford. But his requests were denied, although he had complied with MVCC’s marriage policy—one he contended was more restrictive than BOP’s; in fact, no prisoners had been allowed to marry there since GEO Group assumed operational control.

In 2016, after Davis was released and deported, he and Beckford filed suit against GEO Group, former MVCC Warden George C. Wigen, former BOP administrator Donna Mellendick and U.S. Department of Homeland Security Assistant Field Director David O’Neill, blaming them for preventing the marriage. Proceeding under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the couple raised claims under the Equal Protection Clause, as well as a federal tort claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, asking for a damage award against the federal government under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388, (1971). They later added a § 1985(3) conspiracy claim based on race and alienage, noncitizen status.

The federal court for the Western District of Pennsylvania dismissed the case, finding the GEO Group and Wigen were not federal actors for Bivens purposes. The district court also said that the § 1983 claims failed because Defendants were not state actors and that the § 1985(3) conspiracy claim did not apply to the right to marry.

On appeal, the Third Circuit reversed in part, holding that private actors engaged in “the federal equivalent of ‘state action’” may be subject to Bivens claims, but declining to extend Bivens protection to infringements on the right to marry. The § 1985(3) claim was allowed to proceed, as the alleged conspiracy involved both private and federal defendants. See: Davis v. Samuels, 962 F.3d 105 (3d Cir. 2020).

On remand, Davis and Beckford filed an amended complaint adding a claim under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-­1. RFRA applies only to federal prisoners; for state prisoners, similar protections are provided by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc.The district court again dismissed the case, finding no proof that the inability to marry substantially burdened Plaintiff’s religious beliefs.

Taking up the case once more, the Third Circuit issued a superseding ruling that again partially reversed the district court’s order. To state a RFRA claim, the appellate court explained, a plaintiff must allege that government officials substantially burdened his sincere religious conduct; to counter that, the government defendants must then present evidence that their policy is the “least restrictive means of achieving a compelling governmental interest.”

As a matter of first impression, the Court addressed the issue of whether denial of religious conduct that is not mandatory creates a substantial burden. Answering that question in the affirmative, the Court said “[a] substantial burden under RFRA extends to non-­mandatory religious conduct and expression, i.e. conduct or expression not ‘compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief,’” and Davis’ request to marry “[fell] within that category.”

GEO Group and Wigen argued that even if Davis and Beckford had stated an RFRA claim, it should not apply to them because they were not government actors. That argument was soundly rejected: “By operating a prison containing federal inmates, GEO Group and [former warden] Wigen acted as ‘instrumentalities’ of the federal government,” the Court said.

The federal defendants, Mellendick and O’Neill, argued they were entitled to qualified immunity (QI) on the RFRA claim, as the law was not clearly established at the time with respect to non-­mandatory religious conduct. With this the Third Circuit agreed, noting that it had not distinguished its prior ruling in Washington v. Klem, 497 F.3d 272 (3d Cir. 2007).

As to the § 1985(3) claim based on alienage, Beckford did not have standing because she was a U.S. citizen, while Davis failed to show the denial of his marriage request was due to or motivated by the noncitizen status of prisoners at MVCC, or that such denials served to prevent using marriage to circumvent deportation proceedings.

Lastly, dismissal of Beckford’s intentional infliction of emotional distress claim was affirmed as she did not allege any physical harm or show that Defendants’ conduct was sufficiently egregious. The case was remanded for further proceedings on the RFRA claim against GEO Group and Wigen. Davis and Beckford were represented by attorney Stephen A. Fogdall with Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, a longtime Philadelphia firm that shuttered in August 2023. See: Davis v. Wigen, 82 F.4th 204 (3d Cir. 2023).  

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Related legal cases

Davis v. Wigen

Davis v. Samuels