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Ajaj v. Federal Bureau of Prisons.

No. 19-1250. D.Colo. Judge Hartz. Religious Freedom Restoration Act—Motion to Dismiss—Mootness—Money Damages Against Individual Defendants—Qualified Immunity.

February 9, 2022

Plaintiff, a practicing Muslim, is a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) inmate serving a 114-year sentence for terrorist acts connected with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He was housed at the US Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum (ADX) facility in Colorado from 2012 to 2017 and was subsequently moved to less restrictive facilities in other states. While in Colorado, plaintiff brought claims to obtain injunctive relief against the BOP and damages from BOP officials on several grounds, primarily violations of his rights to free exercise of religion under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). ADX made certain accommodations after plaintiff filed suit, and the district court ultimately enjoined the BOP from discontinuing plaintiff’s halal diet and dismissed the remaining claims.

On appeal, plaintiff contended that the district court erred by holding that his claim against the BOP for denial of his right to group prayer was moot because any relief offered by the transfer was inadequate and temporary. The RFRA prohibits the federal government from substantially burdening an individual’s exercise of religion unless the application of that burden is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest. Here, after plaintiff was transferred to Terre Haute, Indiana, the district court dismissed his group-prayer claim as moot because the prison program he was in allowed group prayer. However, the district court’s mootness ruling was based on a clearly erroneous finding that plaintiff could pray with others five times a day, so it erred.

Plaintiff also argued that the district court erred by holding that the RFRA did not provide a claim for damages against government officials in their individual capacities. While this appeal was pending, the US Supreme Court held in Tanzin v. Tanvir, 141 S.Ct. 486 (2020), that money damages are available under the RFRA. Accordingly, the individual defendants contended that the Tenth Circuit should affirm on the alternative ground of qualified immunity, an issue that both sides briefed below but the district court did not reach. The Tenth Circuit held that qualified immunity can be invoked by officials sued in their individual capacities under the RFRA. However, it declined to opine on the merits of the defense because the district court never reached the issue

The orders dismissing plaintiff’s group prayer claim as moot and dismissing all individual capacity suits for monetary relief were reversed and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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