People For the American Way Foundation

Biden Judge Reverses Lower Court and Gives Prisoners the Chance to Prove their Claims in Two Cases

Biden Judge Reverses Lower Court and Gives Prisoners the Chance to Prove their Claims in Two Cases

Judge Toby Heytens,  nominated by President Biden to the Fourth Circuit court of appeals, wrote two decisions in mid-March 2024 that reversed lower courts and gave prisoners the opportunity to prove their claims that officials had violated their constitutional and statutory rights. The decisions were in Phoenix v Amonette  and in Pendleton v Jividen.


What happened in the Phoenix case?        

Daniel Phoenix is a Virginia prisoner who suffers from celiac disease, which is an allergy to gluten that can cause severe stomach pain and other problems. A doctor who saw him recognized that he has celiac disease and “advised” him to avoid gluten “as much as possible,” claiming that the prison system did not have a gluten-free diet. Phoenix’s symptoms grew worse, including “sharp abdominal pain” and “vomiting blood,” and he was sent to the hospital. The doctor’s discharge instructions included a “strict gluten free diet.”

Less than a week later, however, the doctor “discontinued” the diet order based on “reports” he had “heard” that Phoenix was sometimes ordering food with gluten from the commissary, which caused the doctor to “question” his diagnosis. Even after continued problems and a test that confirmed Phoenix had celiac disease, the doctor “refused to reinstate” the special diet order. After administrative complaints proved futile, Phoenix sued the prison and the doctor, contending that they were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical need in violation of the constitution.

The lower court granted summary judgment against Phoenix. He had missed a deadline for filing an expert witness report, and the court ruled that he could not prevail on his claim without expert testimony. Phoenix appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

Judge Heytens wrote an opinion that was mostly unanimous, reversing the lower court order and giving Phoenix an opportunity to prove his claims. All three judges on the panel agreed that there were disputed issues of fact and that “no expert testimony was needed to avoid summary judgment.” Even without an expert, Heytens explained, a “reasonable jury” could conclude from the evidence that the doctor knew of Phoenix’s celiac disease and “disregarded” the “excessive risk” it posed by refusing to reinstate a gluten-free diet. One of the three judges, Reagan-nominated J. Harvie Wilkinson, dissented in part and would have remanded for reconsideration of the summary judgment motion.


What happened in the Pendleton case?

 Ricky Pendleton is a West Virginia prisoner who is a Muslim with religious beliefs that limit his diet to “vegetables, fruit and certain fish.” The state’s standard religious diet for prisoners, however, includes soy, which causes Pendleton “vomiting, abdominal pain, constipation, and other digestive” problems. Because this is inconsistent with “the purification of the mind, body and the reparation of [the] mental/inner self,” tnis  violates his religious beliefs.

Acting initially on his own, and after unsuccessful grievances were filed, Pendleton filed suit in federal court. He claimed the prison was violating his rights under the Constitution and under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which provides statutory protection against unwarranted prison practices that “stantially burden” a person’s religion. The lower court dismissed Pendleton’s case, claiming that he had not “adequately” alleged violation of his rights. He appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

Judge Heytens wrote a unanimous opinion, joined by Biden nominee Judge DeAndrea Benjamin, which vacated the lower court ruling and sent the case back so Pendleton can pursue his claims. Based on a careful analysis of the papers filed by Pendleton and RLUIPA precedent, Heytens concluded that Pendleton had “plausibly alleged” that the prison’s refusal to provide him with an alternative diet imposes a “substantial burden” on his religious beliefs.


Why Were the Rulings by Judge Heytens, Benjamin and the Fourth Circuit Important?

 Obviously the rulings in these two cases were important to Daniel Phoenix and Ricky Pendleton by giving them an opportunity to vindicate claimed violations of their rights to religious liberty and to avoid “deliberate indifference” to serious medical conditions. The rulings also set important precedent in the Fourth Circuit, which includes Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and South Carolina, concerning cases brought by prisoners. While many prisoner complaints are appropriately dismissed by lower courts, it is important that they take such lawsuits seriously, particularly when complaints concern medical care and diet. As Judge Heytens quoted the Supreme Court as explaining, because “society has taken” from prisoners like Phoneix and Pendleton “the means to provide for their own needs” when they are incarcerated, they are “dependent” on prison systems for food and medical care. In addition, the decisions serve as a reminder of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded nominees like Judge Heytens and Benjamin to our federal courts.