In July 2000, three prisoners in New York state prisons, filing pro se, sued officials of the New York State Department of Correctional Services ("DOCS") and prison ministerial program coordinators. Professing to be Shiite Muslims, the plaintiffs alleged violations of their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights in that the defendants failed to provide them religious accommodations separate from those provided for Sunni Muslim prisoners. Their 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, sought class action status for the case. On September 27, 2000, an unpublished order of District Judge Michael B. Mukasey observed that the complaint set out conclusions rather than factual specifics. Judge Mukasey directed the plaintiffs to amend their complaint to include specific allegations of how their religious freedom was burdened and what alternate means of worship the defendants should provide, so that the allegations would enable the defendants to mount an intelligent defense.
On November 17, 2000, the pro se plaintiffs filed their amended complaint. It sought a total of $500,000 in compensatory damages and injunctive relief. The relief would require the defendants to provide Shi'a prisoners a separate prayer area and access for Shi'a volunteers to assist in worship and religious study. Part of their complaint alleged that the DOCS religious program serving Islamic prisoners was administered by an openly hostile Sunni chaplain provided by DOCS.
The judge held an initial case management conference on June 7, 2001, with the plaintiffs appearing by telephone. Defendants' counsel advised that the case may be moot, in view of changes DOCS was making in response to a recent ruling in state court case, Cancel v. Goord, 717 N.Y.S.2d 610 (N. Y. App. Div. 2000). Defendants stated that they would add measures designed to secure the First Amendment rights of Shiite prisoners, but they disagreed with plaintiffs that separate services were constitutionally mandated. The unresolved dispute prompted the court to direct the parties to proceed to discovery. On August 13, 2001, plaintiffs filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, challenging the adequacy of the DOCS programs for Shiite prisoners and seeking an injunction requiring defendants to establish a separate religious program for Shiite prisoners.
District Judge Gerard E. Lynch denied the plaintiffs' motion on January 3, 2002, in Pugh v. Goord, 184 F.3d 326 (S.D. N.Y. 2002). The judge observed that DOCS' protocol for Shi'a Islamic religious practices was not the gravamen of the plaintiffs' complaint, but that the program, as administered (e.g., without separate Shi'a services and with a hostile Sunni imam), formed the basis of the constitutional claims. Judge Lynch reviewed the measures DOCS had taken in August 2001 (post-Cancel v. Goord) to improve protections of Shiite prisoners rights. He adjudged these measures reasonable, ruling that establishing separate services for Shi'a and Sunni prisoners was not constitutionally required, in view of administrative and security burdens stemming from separate services. The defendants also had taken steps to address the alleged conduct of the Muslim chaplain. Plaintiffs could not, by this lawsuit, require the defendants to do more to discipline or control him, according to the court, since the plaintiffs had not exhausted available administrative remedies (as required by a part of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e, before bringing a § 1983 action with respect to prison conditions). In denying the motion for preliminary injunction, the judge ruled that plaintiffs' case would be dismissed, as well, since his decision considered all information relevant to plaintiffs' central goal of separate services.
Private counsel then entered on behalf of the plaintiffs and, on March 15, 2002, requested the district judge to vacate his order of dismissal. The request was accompanied by extensive discussion of Shiite-Sunni differences, DOCS practices, and alleged discrimination against Shiites in other DOCS facilities; however, Judge Lynch denied the plaintiffs' request on October 10, 2002. His unpublished order adhered to his earlier finding that DOCS had set forth reasonable justifications for refusing to provide separate opportunities for congregate worship. The judge also declined to consider a new argument that defendants' conduct violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), since that claim had not been made previously.
The plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. There, on September 24, 2003, a panel of the court ruled that Judge Lynch had erred by dismissing the case entirely without first providing notice to the parties, who at that point only had reason to expect a ruling on the pending motion for a preliminary injunction. The appellate court did not address the merits of plaintiffs' claims. The panel did note that the plaintiffs, on remand, would have an opportunity to amend their complaint, if they chose. Pugh v. Goord, 345 F.3d 121 (2d Cir. 2003) (Circuit Judge Richard C. Wesley).
On January 18, 2004, still represented by private counsel, the plaintiffs filed their second amended complaint. (By this time, one plaintiff had been released from prison.) The complaint now set out in detail what the plaintiffs contended were substantial religious differences between Shiite and Sunni Muslim beliefs and practices. It asserted that DOCS provisions for Islamic prisoners failed to adequately respect these differences, and noted that DOCS-provided Sunni religious leaders had denigrated Shiite beliefs in prison sessions. Non-party co-conspirators were named in the complaint and were alleged to have conspired with certain of the named defendants (past and present Islamic ministerial program coordinators) to make an extremist form of Sunni Islam the official version of Islam within DOCS facilities and to deny Shiite prisoners free exercise of religion and equal protection of the laws. The complaint noted that the prisons the defendants operated provided separate religious accommodations for eight denominations of Christian religious adherents and three variants of Islamic religious beliefs, but not for Shiites. Alleged violations of plaintiffs' constitutional and statutory rights by the defendants included their (1) imposing an unjustified substantial burden on plaintiffs' religious exercise, contrary to 42 U.S.C. § 2000-cc (the "RLUIPA"); (2) denial of First and Fourteenth Amendment rights guaranteeing the free exercise of religion, precluding the official establishment of a religion, and providing for equal protection of law; (3) conspiracy to deny in violation of 42 U.S.C §1985, and failure to prevent a conspiracy to deny in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1986, these First and Fourteenth Amendment rights; and (4) violation of the rights to free exercise of religion provided by the New York constitution and statutes. Plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief, compensatory, nominal and punitive damages, and an award of attorney's fees and costs.
On September 15, 2004, the case was reassigned to District Judge Kenneth M. Karas. In the following months, discovery ensued, as did a challenge to the constitutionality of the RLUIPA. The challenge resulted, on January 19, 2006, in the United States filing a motion to intervene, in defense of the constitutionality of that statute. The motion was granted on May 1, 2006, without opposition. In the meantime, defendants had filed motions for summary judgment. These motions were unresolved as of January 20, 2007, the most recent entry we have on the PACER docket pertaining to this case.
We have no further information on this ongoing case.Mike Fagan - 05/01/2008