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By David M. Reutter

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals held in September 2013 that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) does not create a private right of action against state officials in their individual capacities.

Anthony Washington, incarcerated at New York’s Woodbourne Correctional Facility, filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in 2009, alleging that guards Paul Gonyea, Tammi Chaboty and Keith Granger had retaliated against him for exercising his First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion. He also raised RLUIPA and due process claims.

Washington’s RLUIPA claim alleged the defendants substantially burdened his free exercise rights. The defendants successfully moved to dismiss that claim because, they argued, Washington failed to plead they had placed “a substantial burden – or indeed, any burden – on his religious practice.”

On appeal, the Second Circuit cited precedent holding that sovereign immunity forecloses the availability of monetary damages as a remedy against states and state actors in their official capacities under RLUIPA. See: Sossamon v. Texas, 131 S.Ct. 1651 (2011) [PLN, Aug. 2011, p.22]. Thus, he could not sustain an official capacity claim.

Washington also sued the defendants in their individual capacities. The appellate court adopted the reasoning of its “sister circuits in concluding that RLUIPA does not provide a cause of action against state officials in their individual capacities because the legislation was enacted pursuant to Congress’ spending power … which allows the imposition of conditions, such as individual liability, only on those parties actually receiving the state funds.”

Individual prison employees are not “recipients” of federal funding; as such, the RLUIPA claim was properly dismissed – although the Court of Appeals declined to decide whether RLUIPA permits individual-capacity suits under the commerce clause. See: Washington v. Gonyea, 731 F.3d 143 (2d Cir. 2013).

Washington’s due process claim was addressed in a separate, unpublished ruling in which the appellate court affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court’s dismissal of the First Amendment retaliation claims, finding that “a liberal reading of the complaint gives rise to a plausible inference that Chaboty and Granger were involved either directly or indirectly, and Washington has therefore adequately pled a violation of his First Amendment rights on that basis.” See: Washington v. Gonyea, 538 Fed. Appx. 23 (2d Cir. 2013).

(Published by Prison Legal News; used by permission)

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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