Monday, August 26, 2013
Court Says State Must Compensate Atheist for Revoking Parole
Inmate Was Sent Back to Prison for Refusing to Participate in 12-Step Program
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A Northern California atheist parolee who went back to prison after refusing to participate in a religiously oriented inpatient treatment program is entitled to damages, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.
A jury verdict awarding Barry Hazle Jr. of Redding zero damages was inconsistent with the district judge’s finding that officials violated his First Amendment rights, so the denial of Hazle’s motion for new trial was reversible error, Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote.
Hazle had served a year in prison on a drug charge. After being released in 2007, he was ordered to take part in the program but refused, saying his atheistic beliefs would not allow him to participate in a 12-step recovery program including references to “God” and to a “higher power.”
He was arrested and jailed again. After serving an additional 100 days, Hazle sued state corrections officials.
Senior U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. of the Eastern District said that Hazle’s re-incarceration violated “uncommonly well-settled” case law regarding the Establishment Clause, and gave the case to the jury solely on the issue of damages. But after the jury returned its zero-damages verdict, Burrell denied the motion for new trial.
He reasoned that the jury may have attributed all of the unconstitutional conduct to parties not before the court, such as the Board of Prison Hearings, which ordered Hazle to participate in the program. But Reinhardt said the district judge was speculating, and that he was wrong as a matter of law because the damages were not subject to being apportioned.
Burrell’s pretrial liability ruling, unchallenged on appeal, established as a matter of law that the actions of the state officials collectively caused a compensable injury to the plaintiff, Reinhardt wrote. “The district judge’s liability finding, as well as the resultant instruction, simply left no room for the jury to infer that all of Hazle’s damages had been caused by persons other than the state defendants,” he added.
“In any event, the state defendants’ explanation of the jury’s zero-damages award as allocating all of Hazle’s injury to absent persons reflects the erroneous view that not only could zero damages be awarded to Hazle, but that Hazle’s damages were capable of apportionment. Hazle independently challenges the jury instruction and verdict form that allowed the jury to decide this question, contending that the district judge should have concluded, as a matter of law, that Hazle was entitled to compensatory damages and that defendants were jointly and severally liable for his injuries. He is correct.”
Summary Judgment Tossed
The jurist went on to say that Burrell erred in granting summary judgment to one defendant, Westcare, which provided substance abuse treatment under contract with the state prison system. Hazle is entitled to a trial of his claim against the company—whose subcontractor, Empire Recovery Center ran the program that Hazle refused to attend—because there is “a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Westcare’s policy of contracting solely with religious facilities was a proximate cause of his constitutional injuries,” Reinhardt said.
The judge questioned Westcare’s argument that the real cause of Hazle’s damages was the state’s decision to send him to Westcare in the first place, knowing that the company could only place him in a religious-based program.
“To the extent that Westcare suggests that the state should have known and accommodated the fact that all of Westcare’s treatment facilities would violate the First Amendment rights of non-religious parolees, we are doubtful that such an argument may serve as a defense to liability, particularly given Westcare’s special role as the state-contracted Substance Abuse Services Coordination Agency for the region involved,” Reinhardt wrote. “It appears from the record that there were no other entities that provided the service that Westcare did in the region of California that it served under its contract with the state,” the judge noted, adding that Westcare admitted that it coordinated with the state agency as to placements.
Senior Judge Dorothy W. Nelson and Judge Milan D. Smith Jr. joined in the opinion.
The case is Hazle v. Crofoot, 11-15354.
Copyright 2013, Metropolitan News Company