April 20, 2011

Supreme Court Decides Sossamon v. Texas

On April 20, 2011, the Supreme Court decided Sossamon v. Texas, No. 08-1438, holding that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) does not contain an unambiguous waiver of sovereign immunity, so it does not authorize individuals to recover money damages against a state. 

In 2006, Harvey Leroy Sossamon III, a Texas prison inmate, filed suit seeking money damages against the state of Texas and prison officials.  Sossamon alleged that the defendants violated RLUIPA by preventing inmates from attending religious services while they were confined to their cell for disciplinary infractions, and by barring use of the prison chapel for religious worship.  The district court held, and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, that sovereign immunity barred claims for monetary relief under RLUIPA.  Interpreting RLUIPA's provision for "appropriate relief against a government," 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-2(a), the courts determined that the phrase was not an unambiguous notification to Texas that acceptance of federal funds constituted a waiver of sovereign immunity for claims seeking monetary damages.

The Supreme Court agreed.  Waivers of sovereign immunity, the Court noted, are strictly construed.  The phrase "appropriate relief," far from being express, "is open-ended and ambiguous about what types of relief it includes."  The Court distinguished other opinions in which the Court had used the phrase "appropriate relief" to include monetary damages because those cases involved implied rights of action where there was "no express congressional intent to limit the remedies available."  RLUIPA, in contrast, provides language governing the scope of the waiver of sovereign immunity, so the lack of express language including monetary damages as an available remedy controlled the outcome.  The Court also rejected Sossamon's arguments that monetary relief was available because (1) RLUIPA was enacted pursuant to the Spending Clause of the Constitution, and (2) the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1986 put states on notice that monetary damages were available under RLUIPA.  See 42 U.S.C. § 2000d-7.

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Alito joined.  Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Breyer joined.  Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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