Utah Prisoner Awarded $200 for Violation of Religious Rights

Utah Prisoner Awarded $200 for Violation of Religious Rights

A federal district court awarded $200 to a Utah prisoner who sued on the grounds that prison officials interfered with his right to freely exercise his religion. However, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed part of the prisoner’s appeal because he did not adequately brief some of his claims and held that another claim was moot.

Danny Lee Warner, Jr. alleged that while he was held at the Utah State Prison, officials denied various requests that he said were necessary to practice his religion. Warner is a follower of Odinism, also known as Asatru and Odhvegr, which is a faith-based on Norse mythology.

He asked for accommodations that included a metal or wood thors hammer medallion, wood runes, a wooden bowl, and an altar cloth. In denying his requests, prison officials cited security concerns. Warner also alleged that for Winter Nights, an Odinist holiday period lasting several weeks, he was denied break-the-fast boxes (boxed meals to eat after sunset). Further, prison officials refused to allow him access to a publication due to a ban on all materials from the publisher, National Vanguard Press.

Warner filed suit alleging that prison officials had violated his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion, as well as his Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection and due process. His lawsuit also claimed violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) based on the denial of his request for break-the-fast boxes and the publication ban.

At the time the district court ruled on Warner’s motion for summary judgment, he had been transferred to the Florence Correctional Center in Arizona. Nonetheless, he proceeded on the grounds that he would be returned to Utah for incarceration at some point in the future. His lawsuit named the defendants in their official and individual capacities and sought an injunction to prevent them from continuing to violate his rights.

The district court dismissed all but three of Warner’s claims, finding that prison officials had violated the Fourteenth Amendment and RLUIPA by denying the break-the-fast boxes. The court further held that they had violated Warner’s First Amendment rights and RLUIPA by banning the publication he requested.

The defendants conceded that Warner was entitled to nominal damages for the First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, and RLUIPA violations. The court awarded $100 in nominal damages on each of the two constitutional claims for a $200 total award.

The district court held that compensatory damages were prohibited by the Prison Litigation Reform Act because Warner had no physical injuries, and monetary damages were not available for RLUIPA violations. [See: PLN, Aug. 2011, p.22]. The court also declined to award punitive damages, as Warner did not specifically allege the defendants were motivated by an evil motive or intent or had acted with reckless or callous indifference.

Finally, the district court found Warner was not entitled to an injunction that would have barred Utah prison officials from denying his religious rights. The court said that while it was likely Warner would be returned to the Utah Department of Corrections (UDOC) at some point in the future, “there is little reason to believe that the violations proven here are likely to be repeated.” The district court noted that the publication ban was not a formal policy but rather a misinterpretation of policy which had since been corrected, and that the UDOC had said it would allow followers of Odinism to receive break-the-fast boxes during Winter Nights.

As Warner had represented himself in the lawsuit, the court did not award attorney fees; it did, however, note that he may file a motion to recover costs and commended him for the “zealous defense of his rights and for the exemplary manner in which he has litigated his claims here.” See: Warner v. Patterson, U.S.D.C. (D. Utah), Case No. 2:08-cv-00519; 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131559 (D. Utah 2012).

Not satisfied with the district court’s dismissal of most of his claims, Warner appealed to the Tenth Circuit. In an August 22, 2013 decision, the Court of Appeals said the arguments in Warner’s appellate brief regarding the denial of his requests for thors hammer medallions, wood runes, a wooden bowl, and other ritual items, including an altar cloth and group worship were “insufficient to merit review,” as they had not been adequately briefed.

The appellate court also affirmed the lower court’s denial of an injunction against the UDOC and declared Warner’s appeal of the RLUIPA claims moot because he was no longer incarcerated in Utah. “In deciding whether a case is moot, the crucial question is whether granting a present determination of the issues offered will have some effect in the real world,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “When it becomes impossible for a court to grant effective relief, a live controversy ceases to exist, and the case becomes moot.” As Warner was no longer in the UDOC’s custody, “declaratory and injunctive relief, therefore, cannot affect defendants’ treatment of him.” Thus, the case was remanded to the district court to dismiss the RLUIPA claims.

Warner petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, which was denied on February 24, 2014. See: Warner v. Patterson, 534 Fed. Appx. 785 (10th Cir. 2013), cert. denied.

(Reprinted with permission from Prison Legal News)