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United States Supreme Court Considers RLUIPA Damages Case

Written by Daniel P. Dalton on October 24, 2010 Category: Land Use and Zoning, Religious Institutions, RLUIPA

In the very near future, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Sossamon v. Texas, (Docket No. 08-1438, cert. granted 5/24/2010)The suit was brought by an inmate who objected to the prison’s policy of prohibiting congregational worship in the prison’s chapel. He claimed that alternative worship venues do not give him access to Christian symbols or furnishings such as an altar or cross. At issue is not the ability to worship. Rather, the Supreme Court’s grant of review was limited to one question: “Whether an individual may sue a State or state official in his official capacity for damages for violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. §2000cc et seq. (2000 ed.).”

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that official-capacity damage actions are barred by the state’s sovereign immunity. Agreeing with the 4th Circuit, it concluded that RLUIPA did not clearly alert the state of Texas that it would waive sovereign immunity for damage actions by accepting federal funding. The 5th Circuit also held that damages under RLUIPA are not available in suits against officials in their individual capacities. It reasoned that because RLUIPA was enacted under Congress’ Spending Clause Powers, only the governmental recipient of the grant may be liable for a violation. The Supreme Court did not grant cert. to review that part of the holding.

It will be very interesting to see where the Court comes out on this case. I have previously written and spoken of the concept of damages within RLUIPA. Congress chose to say that a claimant is entitled to all “appropriate relief” when he / she / it prevails on a RLUIPA claim. The challenge with this case is that RLUIPA captures both land use and the institutionalized persons through its provisions. A land use Plaintiff may assert a claim against an individual in his or her official capacity, or individual capacity, based on the decisions made by the elected or appointed official. An institutionalized person must overcome other statutory provisions before seeking compensation. At times, the potential of paying significant damages may be the only notion by which elected and appointed official consider following the law. The idea of taking away the ability to secure damages based on an official capacity claim may cascade down to lower Court’s deciding that no damages are available in any RLUIPA claim. That would be bad policy and contravene the intent of Congress. It will be very interesting to see where the Court ends with this significant issue.

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