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Leahy v. Conant

Supreme Court of Alaska

August 16, 2019


          Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska Third Judicial District, Anchorage, No. 3AN-14-11007CI, Erin B. Marston, Judge.

          Raymond Leahy, pro se, Wasilla, Appellant.

          Mary B. Pinkel, Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellees.

          Before: Bolger, Chief Justice, Stowers, Maassen, and Carney, Justices.[Winfree, Justice, not participating.]


          CARNEY, JUSTICE.


         An inmate representing himself sued the prison superintendent and chaplain for violating his religious rights by providing an inadequate halal diet, banning scented prayer oils, and not allowing him to have additional religious texts in his cell beyond the prison's limit. He claimed these actions violated the Equal Protection Clause of both the Alaska Constitution and the federal Constitution, and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The inmate also sought reimbursement for scented oils that the prison had destroyed. The superior court granted the prison officials' motion for summary judgment and dismissed all of the inmate's claims.

         We reverse summary judgment on the inmate's RLUIPA claim regarding the halal diet because the inmate did not receive adequate guidance on how to file affidavits in opposition to the summary judgment motion. We reverse summary judgment on the RLUIPA claim regarding scented oils because the prison officials failed to satisfy their burden of proving that banning such oils was the least restrictive means to address their substantial interest in maintaining prison security and health. We affirm the dismissal of the inmate's claims regarding the religious book limit because the issue is not yet ripe. And we vacate the award of attorney's fees and costs.[1]


         Raymond Leahy is a Muslim inmate at Goose Creek Correctional Center (Goose Creek) in Wasilla. He observes Islam's dietary restrictions (called "halal") and incorporates scented prayer oils in his daily prayers. To further his religious studies he requested additional religious texts above the number generally allowed per inmate.

         Leahy first requested a diet that included halal or kosher meat in April 2013.[2] Leahy had been receiving a vegetarian diet, but asserted that it caused him gastrointestinal distress. Goose Creek served vegan or vegetarian meals to both Muslim and Jewish inmates due to the expense and challenges of providing a halal or kosher diet.[3]

         Leahy claims to have used scented oils in his daily prayers until April 2014. He asserts that unscented prayer oil does not serve his religious needs because the scent is an important component of his prayers. But in April 2014 Goose Creek banned scented prayer oils following documented health concerns. Leahy objected to the ban and requested that his oils be stored until his objections were resolved, but Goose Creek disposed of them in December. The disposed oils cost Leahy a total of $65.70.

         In April and May of 2014, respectively, Leahy filed grievances after his requests for a halal meat diet and an exception to Goose Creek's ban on scented prayer oils were denied. After the grievances were denied, he submitted administrative appeals which were also denied.

         A. The First Complaint

         After he was unable to convince Goose Creek to grant him access to halal meat or scented oils, Leahy filed a complaint in superior court in December 2014[4] for declaratory judgment, injunctive relief, and damages against John Conant, the Goose Creek superintendent, and James Duncan, the Department of Corrections' statewide Chaplaincy Coordinator (the officials). Leahy argued that they violated his rights under RLUIPA by placing a substantial burden on his religious exercise by denying his request for a halal meat diet and banning scented prayer oil, [5] and that the officials' actions also violated article I, sections 1 and 4 of the Alaska Constitution.[6]

         Goose Creek began serving halal/kosher meat meals at about the same time that Leahy filed his complaint. But Leahy objected to the quality and nutritional value of the meals. Leahy claimed that around the same time, Goose Creek introduced pork for the first time into its kitchen. Islamic law considers pork to be "haram" or unlawful; Leahy was concerned that his meals were being contaminated by their preparation in the same kitchen.

         B. The Second Complaint

         A month after filing his first complaint Leahy filed a second one, asserting that his religious rights were being violated by Goose Creek's limit on religious books and its ban and disposal of scented prayer oils he had already received approval to purchase. He argued that, despite Goose Creek's limit of 11 publications per inmate, he should be allowed to possess ten religious books and ten religious magazines in his cell.

         In September 2015 Conant granted Leahy an exception to the scented oil ban, allowing him to store scented prayer oils in the chaplain's closet and check them out for prayers in his cell. But in July 2016, after reports of allergic reactions to the oils by inmates and staff, Conant reinstated the total ban against scented oils. Goose Creek continues to allow the use of unscented prayer oils; the oils are stored and used only in the chapel.

         C. Summary Judgment

         The officials moved for summary judgment, arguing that neither the Goose Creek halal diet nor the prayer oil policy violated RLUIPA, that the diet did not violate Leahy's equal protection rights, and that the book limitation policy did not violate either RLUIPA or Leahy's equal protection rights.

         Leahy filed an opposition to summary judgment the same month. He asserted that he had never previously been informed of Goose Creek's policy allowing inmates only five books, five magazines, and one religious text in their cells or that he needed to fill out a Religious Accommodation Request Form if he wanted an exception from the policy. Leahy also asserted that he would not fill out the required form because he wanted a "fluid" book list that was not determined by the officials' judgment of what was religiously appropriate. In response to the officials' argument that they were entitled to summary judgment with regard to the ban on scented prayer oils, Leahy proposed less restrictive alternatives. He suggested permitting only "milder" scents less likely to irritate others, allowing only one ounce to be stored in an inmate's cell, or having all scented oils stored in the chaplain's office and checked out for use in the chapel. Regarding the halal diet, Leahy disagreed with the facts as the officials presented them and argued that the halal diet rarely had meat, that fruit was unnecessarily exposed to potential contamination, and that the actual menu differed from that on which Goose Creek based its nutritional claims. Leahy did not submit any affidavits with his opposition.

         The officials replied to Leahy's opposition. Leahy filed a response to their reply. The officials moved to strike the response because it was not permitted by the rules of civil procedure; the court granted the motion. The court also granted the officials' motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case with prejudice.

         Leahy then filed a motion to reconsider the grant of summary judgment. In his motion he included new facts concerning another religious group's use of scented prayer oils at Goose Creek. The officials moved for entry of final judgment. The court denied Leahy's motion to reconsider and entered final judgment in favor of the officials. The court's order stated that "the claims have either been agreed to be moot or [Leahy] did not raise genuine disputes of material facts and [the officials were] entitled to judgment as a matter of law." The court also noted that Leahy's attempt to present new evidence in his motion to reconsider was not appropriate. Following the superior court's final judgment Goose Creek paid Leahy $65.70 for the prayer oils which it had destroyed.

         Leahy appeals.


         "We review for abuse of discretion 'decisions about guidance to a pro se litigant.' "[7] Abuse of discretion is found" 'when a party has been deprived of a substantial right or seriously prejudiced by the [trial] court's ruling.' We consider 'the particular facts and circumstances of each individual case to determine whether the denial was so unreasonable or so prejudicial as to amount to an abuse of discretion.' "[8]We hold self-represented litigants to a "less stringent" standard than lawyers; so long as the essence of the self-represented litigant's argument can be easily discerned from the briefing, and the opposing party would not be prejudiced by its consideration, it should be considered.[9]

         "We review a grant of summary judgment de novo"[10] and "view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party."[11] "Questions of ripeness are reviewed de novo."[12]


         Leahy argues that the superior court abused its discretion by granting summary judgment to the officials without first providing him necessary guidance about how to present facts in support of his claims. He argues that it also abused its discretion by not adequately considering the facts that he did present. We agree he received insufficient guidance on how to file affidavits in support of his opposition to summary judgment and we therefore reverse summary judgment on his RLUIPA claim regarding an inadequate halal diet. We also reverse summary judgment on his RLUIPA claim regarding the ban on scented prayer oils because the officials did not demonstrate that a complete ban on such oils was the least ...

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