A prisoner incarcerated at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility brought this action pro se in the District of New Mexico (Judge Martha Vasquez) on November 16, 2007. Plaintiff, who is one-eighth ethnically Potawatomi Native American, alleged that officials at the facility refused to allow him access to the Sweat Lodge area of the facility in order to practice his Potawatomi religious beliefs because he appeared to be white. This denial adhered to New Mexico Corrections Department Policy CD-101100, which restricted the practice of any Native American religions to people who could prove that they were racially descended from an American Indian tribe. Plaintiff obtained a Member Identification Card from the Tribal Rolls Director for the Potawatomi Tribe and presented this to prison officials as proof of his ethnicity, but his request to practice his Potawatomi religious beliefs was still denied. After filing a claim with the Risk Management Division of the facility, Plaintiff was allowed access to the Sweat Lodge but was denied any of the required items and materials he needed in order to perform his religious rituals.
Plaintiff claimed that the prison's policy of restricting the practice of Native American religious ceremonies to persons who can persons who can prove Native American ancestry constituted an unreasonable and substantial burden on his free exercise of the religion of his choice based upon his race, in violation of his statutory rights under 42 U.S.C. § 2000. He further claimed that the prison's policy violated his fundamental rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and entitled him to relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for racial discrimination. He also sought relief under the New Mexico Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Native American Counseling Act, and the Free Exercise Clause of the State Constitution, entitling him to injunctive relief and monetary damages.
On January 28, 2010, Plaintiff filed a motion for preliminary injunction, claiming that there was more than a substantial likelihood that he would ultimately prevail on the merits, there was a greater injustice to him if the injunction was denied than harm to the defendants if the injunction was granted, and granting the injunction would not disserve the public interest. Between the time the motion was filed and the August 29, 2008 order on the motion, Plaintiff was moved to a new facility, so the request for preliminary injunction against the officials of his former facility was denied as moot.
On June 9, 2008, Plaintiff moved for Partial Summary Judgment, stating that the defendants admitted in their answer that they have a policy of imposing a racial screening test on prisoners before allowing them to practice Native American religions. On September 30, 2008, the court granted this motion in part and denied it in part. The court granted summary judgment on Plaintiff's First Amendment claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, stating that he put forth sufficient evidence that his religious activities were substantially burdened in not being allowed access to the Sweat Lodge or the necessary materials to perform his religious ceremonies and that the prison officials failed to put forth evidence of any legitimate penological interests to justify their actions. Plaintiff was granted summary judgment on his claims under the New Mexico Religious Freedom Restoration Act, §§ 28-22-1, et seq., for the same reasons. Plaintiff was denied the claim that prison officials discriminated against him by requiring him to prove his Native American heritage. The court also denied Plaintiff's claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The court awarded Plaintiff $100 in nominal damages for the violations § 1983 and the New Mexico Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
A bench trial on the remaining issues was scheduled for March 16, 2009, at which Holland & Hart LLP were appointed to represent Plaintiff pro bono. However, the parties reached a settlement before trial. The settlement agreement granted Plaintiff access to the Sweat Lodge several times a month with certain quantities of religious materials. Defendants also promised that plaintiff would be allowed access to these privileges if he were transferred to a new prison in the future. The parties stipulated to a dismissal of the case filed on April 16, 2009.
After the settlement, Plaintiff brought a motion for an Order for Relief from Judgment Pursuant to Rule 60 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure on January 6, 2010. Plaintiff complained that after the settlement had been reached, the New Mexico Corrections Department transferred him to a prison in Florida, where the terms of the settlement were not adhered to, he was not allowed to practice his religion and was separated from the items necessary to practice his religion. In his report on the motion, Chief Magistrate Judge Richard L. Puglisi stated that the court did not have authority to enforce the settlement agreement and recommended the motion be denied. This motion was ultimately withdrawn, however, with assistance from Plaintiff's court-appointed counsel and settled out of court. In the final order on January 26, 2010, Chief Magistrate Judge Richard L. Puglisi found as moot plaintiffs Motion for Relief and granted plaintiff's Motion to Withdraw Motion for Relief.David Priddy - 07/01/2011