7th Cir: Qualified Immunity Turns on Whether Chaplain believed Prisoner’s Religious Beliefs Sincere

In an interlocutory appeal, the Seventh Circuit held that it was unconstitutional for a prison chaplain to deny a prisoner’s dietary request on the grounds that the diet did not conform to the diet espoused by the traditional tenets of the prisoner’s religion. Because the district court had not determined the chaplain’s motives for denying the prisoner’s request, the Seventh Circuit remanded to the district court with instructions to make the determination. Vinning-El v. Evans, No. 10-1681, 2011 WL 4336661 (7th Cir. Sept. 16, 2011). Judge Frank Easterbrook, a Reagan nominee, wrote the opinion, joined by Judge Joel Flaum, also a Reagan nominee, and Judge Ilana Rovner, nominated by George H.W. Bush.

During his incarceration at Pinckneyville Correctional Center, Mondrea Vinning-El, who adheres to the Moorish Science Temple of America, explained to the prison chaplain, Rick Sutton, that his religious beliefs require a vegan diet. Sutton denied Vinning-El’s request, noting that the tenets of the Moorish Temple do not require a vegan diet. After insisting that his religious beliefs require a vegan diet, irrespective of the traditional tenets of his religion, Vinning-El filed a lawsuit against Sutton and the warden of the prison, alleging violations of both 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc to 2000cc–5. The Defendants took an interlocutory appeal after the district court granted their motion for summary judgment on the RLUIPA claim but denied it on the §1983 claim

On appeal, the Defendants contended that they are entitled to qualified immunity on both claims. Before reaching that issue, the court first affirmed the district court’s holding that both Defendants prevail against the RLUIPA claim. After noting that damages are the only relief available to Vinning-El since he is no longer at Pinckneyville, the court reasoned that there is no relief available to Vinning-El under RLUIPA because it does not authorize money damages against states, and lawsuits against state employees in their official capacity are treated as lawsuits against the states themselves. See Sossamon v. Texas, 131 S. Ct. 1651 (2011); Will v. Mich. Dep’t of State Police, 491 U.S. 58 (1989).  The court also foreclosed relief against the Defendants in their personal capacities because RLUIPA does not authorize any kind of relief against public employees. See Nelson v. Miller, 570 F.3d 868 (7th Cir. 2009).

The court was also able to rule on the §1983 claim against the prison warden without reference to qualified immunity. The court based its decision on a recent Supreme Court case, which held that §1983 does not authorize “supervisory liability.” See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1947-49 (2009). Because Vinning-El did not allege that the prison warden made or ratified the decision regarding his diet, the court held that the district court should have granted the prison warden’s motion for summary judgment.

The court then turned to the final issue, which was whether qualified immunity protects Chaplain Sutton from the §1983 claim. To decide this question, the court stated that it was necessary to decide whether Vinning-El has a good constitutional claim. On this issue, the court found it important that Vinning-El alleged that he was discriminated against because of the manner in which he practices Moorish Science. This fact was important to the court because it is established law that a personal religious faith is entitled to the same protection as a hierarchical religion. See Frazee v. Ill. Dep’t of Employment Sec., 489 U.S. 829, 834 (1989). Consequently, the court reasoned that if Chaplain Sutton refused Vinning-El’s dietary request on the grounds that it did not conform to the tenets espoused by the church’s leaders, he violated the constitution. If, on the other hand, Sutton denied Vinning-El’s request because he believed that Vinning-El did not sincerely believe that a vegan diet is necessary to his faith, he did not violate the constitution. Adding that Frazee was decided long before Vinning-El’s request, the court concluded that Sutton’s immunity turned on his motivations for denying Vinning-El’s request.

The district court, however, never addressed the question of Sutton’s motives. Instead, the district court applied the standard of RLUIPA, asking whether the denial of Vinning-El’s dietary request “was the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.” See Vinning-El v. Evans, 694 F. Supp. 2d 1009, 1013 (S.D. Ill. 2010). After explaining at length why the standard used by the district court is not the standard that should have been applied, the Seventh Circuit issued instructions to the lower court. On remand, the district court must hold a hearing to resolve the qualified-immunity defense. If the district court determines that Sutton denied Vinning-El’s request because the dietary restrictions did not conform to the tenets of the Moorish Temple, Sutton is not entitled to immunity and a jury trial must be held to determine whether Vinning-El sincerely believed that a vegan diet is necessary to his faith. Alternatively, if the district court determines that Sutton denied Vinning-El’s request because he did not think that Vinning-El sincerely believed that a vegan diet is necessary to his faith, Sutton is entitled to immunity.

Scott Herrig, University of California, Berkeley-School of Law 2012


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