August 22, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Officers Entitled to Qualified Immunity When Inmate Cut His Dreadlocks, Contrary to His Religious Beliefs; No RLUIPA Cause of Action Against Individual Officers

The Tenth Circuit published its opinion in Stewart v. Beach on Tuesday, December 18, 2012.

Mr. Stewart was an inmate at the Kansas Department of Corrections. In accordance with his Rastafarian religious beliefs, he did not cut or comb his hair, which he kept in dreadlocks. Stewart learned that his mother had been diagnosed with cancer.  To be closer to her, Stewart requested a transfer to the Lansing Correctional Facility. His request was granted. On the day of the transfer, defendant Officer Beach refused to allow Stewart to board the transport vehicle because he could not comb out his dreadlocks as was required as a security procedure. Beach consulted with her supervisor, defendant Wilson, who gave Stewart the choice of either cutting his hair or foregoing the transfer. Stewart eventually cut off his dreadlocks and was transferred to Lansing.

Stewart filed an action asserting that defendants forced him to choose between adhering to his religious beliefs and transferring closer to his ailing mother, and that this violated his rights under the Free Exercise Clause and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Beach and Wilson filed a motion to dismiss, which was granted on the ground that Beach and Wilson were entitled to qualified immunity. Stewart appealed.

Stewart argued that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity. Qualified immunity shields government officials performing discretionary functions from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. In resolving a motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity, a court must consider whether the facts that a plaintiff has alleged make out a violation of a constitutional right, and whether the right at issue was clearly established at the time of defendants’ alleged misconduct. The dispositive inquiry in determining whether a right is clearly established is whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.

In the absence of controlling authority, the Tenth Circuit concluded that a constitutional right is clearly established if there is a robust consensus of cases of persuasive authority. From the Court’s survey of these cases, the most it could say was that defendants had warning that enforcement of the grooming policy might violate Stewart’s free exercise right. But the Court could not say that it was clearly established that their enforcement of the policy violated Stewart’s constitutional rights.  The Court therefore concluded that defendants were entitled to qualified immunity.

 Stewart further argued that his rights were violated under RLUIPA. The Act protects institutionalized persons who are unable freely to attend to their religious needs and are therefore dependent on the government’s permission and accommodation for exercise of their religion. RLUIPA also provides a cause of action against a government. Since RLUIPA does not provide a cause of action against individual defendants in their individual capacities, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of this claim.


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