Friday, January 3, 2003
Rastafarian Inmate Denied Fair Notice of Proceeding On Religious Freedom Claim—Court
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
A Rastafarian prison inmate will get another chance to challenge a California Department of Corrections mandate that he cut his hair, under a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling yesterday that his rights as a pro se petitioner were not properly protected.
Earl Wayne Wyatt has been subjected to discipline by officials at the Mule Creek State Prison in Amador County for not complying with the state’s grooming requirements for prisoners, and lost his quest for recognition of his religious freedom to wear dreadlocks when a federal magistrate judge employed an unusual judicial notice procedure and recommended summary judgment against him.
But the Ninth Circuit said the magistrate’s attempt to expedite the court process failed to adequately notify Wyatt about how the procedure worked and left him unable to respond to the prison officials’ summary judgment motion.
Federal trial courts must assure that pro se prisoners get fair notice of summary judgment requirements flowing a series of steps set out in a 1998 Ninth Circuit case.
“Under the right circumstances and with proper regard for fairness of the proceedings, a district court is not barred from utilizing fair and proper procedures that may economize judicial resources,” Judge Raymond Fisher wrote. “Pro se prison litigants, however, should not be saddled with findings from prior cases where they had no say in the development of the record or in the strategic decisions from which that record sprang.”
Wyatt is serving a 17-year term for voluntary manslaughter. His dreadlocks are part of his Rastafarian faith, a religion that took its modern shape in 20th century Jamaica and teaches that the late Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia is the messiah. Rastafarians believe the Bible calls for wearing the hair long.
The inmate brought a civil rights suit against the prison wardens under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 to challenge the grooming regulations. He alleged that the regulations violated his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion, his Fourteenth Amendment equal protection rights and his statutory right to free exercise under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
State prison regulations provide that male inmates’ hair “shall not be longer than three inches and shall not extend over the eyebrows or below the top of the shirt collar while standing upright.”
The magistrate judge in the Eastern District of California served both Wyatt and the wardens with a copy of the findings and recommendations he had made in Toyebo v. Terhune, an unsuccessful 1990 challenge to the regulations by a group of American Indian inmates, and directed the wardens to file a summary judgment motion with respect to Wyatt’s claim under the First Amendment.
In his order, the magistrate said nothing about using the findings he made in Toyebo for judicial notice or what their place could be in a summary judgment motion. The wardens filed the summary judgment motion as instructed and included the Toyebo findings as an exhibit. There was no explanation of judicial notice or of whether the findings were being offered as evidence.
The magistrate took judicial notice of his own Toyebo findings and adopted as undisputed facts the wardens’ list of justifications for the grooming regulations, their testimony on the adverse impact of accommodating religion, and the finding that a larger inmate population meant more searches must be conducted. The magistrate then recommended granting summary judgment, and then-Chief U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton of the Eastern District of California, who has since taken senior status, granted the motion.
In 1998, the Ninth Circuit ruled in Rand v. Rowland that a pro se prisoner litigant must be informed of the right to file counter-affidavits or other responsive evidentiary materials and be “alerted to the fact that to do so might result in the entry of summary judgment against the prisoner.”
Rand also requires informing the prisoner of the effect of losing on summary judgment. It also must be explained that if the prisoner fails to file counter-affidavits or evidence, the moving party’s evidence might be taken as truth and judgment could be entered against the prisoner without trial.
Fisher said the magistrate judge did not take the required Rand steps, requiring reversal of the summary judgment.
On the Religious Freedom Restoration Act issue, the wardens properly noted that the act was struck down as unconstitutional as applied to the states. But Congress subsequently passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act which provides similar rights. The Ninth Circuit last month relied on that act when it upheld the right of Muslim prisoners at Vacaville State Prison to observe Friday prayer services.
In Wyatt’s case, Fisher rejected the argument that the RFRA cause of action should be read by the court as a pleading under the RLUIPA. But he said Wyatt should be given the chance to amend his complaint on remand so that he can cite to the proper statute.
The case is Wyatt v. Terhune, 00-16568.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company