Emphasizing that waivers of sovereign immunity are to be strictly construed in favor of the sovereign, Justice Thomas wrote the Court’s opinion holding that the term “appropriate relief” in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) did not provide states with adequate notice that they were waiving immunity to damages claims.
The reasoning expands upon the Court’s holding in Arlington Central School District Bd. of Ed v. Murphy, 548 U.S. 291 (2006), that express remedies in Spending Clause statutes are to be narrowly construed in suits against states. The plaintiff attempted to rely upon the statutory waiver of sovereign immunity for the Rehabilitation Act, but the Court distinguished the applicable statutory provision of RLUIPA as not including the word “discrimination.” Justice Sotomayor wrote a dissent joined by Justice Breyer. Justice Kagan was recused. Sossamon v. Texas, 2011 WL 1485252 (April 20, 2011).
Harvey Sossamon was prevented from attending prison religious services while on cell restriction for disciplinary infractions. After he filed a prison grievance, the prison changed its policy, rendering his claim for injunctive relief moot. He pursued an action for damages under RLUIPA. The district court and Fifth Circuit held that the claim for damages was barred by sovereign immunity.
The Court affirmed. Justice Thomas’s opinion stands in stark contrast to the opinion released a day earlier in Virginia Office of Protection and Advocacy (VOPA) v. Stewart, 2011 WL 1466121 (April 19, 2011). While Scalia’s opinion in VOPA reasoned that states should have known that Ex parte Young would permit suits for injunctive relief, no matter how the state configured its Protection and Advocacy program, Sossamon stressed that states cannot be expected to figure out, when accepting federal funds, that “appropriate relief” includes damages.
The Court conceded that “appropriate relief” does sometimes include damages. However, since in some cases “appropriate relief” might not include damages, the Constitution barred a damages claim against the state. The Court stated: “where a statute is susceptible of multiple plausible interpretations, including one preserving immunity, we will not consider a State to have waived its sovereign immunity.”
The plaintiff argued that because Spending Clause statutes are like contracts, damages must be available; damages are generally available for breach of contract. Not surprisingly, the Court rejected this argument. Thomas noted that in prior cases, the Spending Clause contract analogy had been utilized as a “limitation on liability.” The analogy did not provide a basis to “extend monetary liability against the States.”
Reliance upon the waiver of sovereign immunity in the Rehabilitation Act Amendments likewise proved unavailing. That statute has a catch all phrase for federal statutes prohibiting discrimination. 42 U.S.C. § 2000d-7(a)(1). The Court noted that the land use portion of RLUIPA references “discrimination,” but the prison provision prohibits “substantial burden[s]” on religious exercise. Since the prison portion did not use the word “discrimination,” the Court rejected the availability of the Rehabilitation Act Amendment’s remedy for discrimination. The Court stated: a State might reasonably conclude that the clause covers only provisions using the term “discrimination.”
Dissenting, Sotomayor asserted that the term “appropriate relief” clearly encompasses damages and is unambiguous, regardless of litigants’ strategic arguments about plausible alternative interpretations. She further protested that the majority’s decision was contrary to RLUIPA’s express statutory purpose of protecting religious exercise.