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Smith v. Owens

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

February 17, 2017

LESTER J. SMITH, Plaintiff-Appellant,
BRIAN OWENS, COMMISSIONER, GEORGIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, in his official and individual capacities, Defendant-Appellee.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia D.C. Docket No. 5:12-cv-00026-WLS-CHW

          Before WILSON and JILL PRYOR, Circuit Judges, and BUCKLEW, [*] District Judge.


         Lester Smith, a Georgia state prisoner, alleges the grooming policy enforced in Georgia state prisons violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA")[1] by substantially burdening his exercise of a sincerely held religious belief that Islam requires him to grow an uncut beard. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, Brian Owens, Commissioner of Georgia's Department of Corrections ("GDOC"). Smith appeals, contending that Holt v. Hobbs, [2] a Supreme Court opinion issued after the district court's order, renders the district court's analysis inadequate. After review, and with the benefit of oral argument, we vacate and remand.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Smith filed a pro se action against Owens, arguing that he had been denied his constitutional right to practice Islam by operation of a GDOC grooming policy that forced him to shave his beard. He stated his belief that "cutting of the beard is against a command from God in al-islam, " Doc. 1 at 4, No. 5:12-cv-00026-WLS-CHW, and he sought nominal damages and injunctive relief for violations of RLUIPA, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the First Amendment, and the Georgia constitution.

         Owens filed a motion to dismiss, which the district court (by adoption of the magistrate judge's Report and Recommendation) granted as to every claim except Smith's RLUIPA claim for injunctive relief against Owens in his official capacity. While the motion to dismiss was pending, Smith filed a motion for summary judgment, which the district court denied.

         Owens then filed his own motion for summary judgment. He argued Smith could not establish a prima facie case under RLUIPA. Owens explained that though the GDOC's grooming policy generally prohibited growing beards, Smith qualified for a medical-condition exception that allowed him to grow a beard of ⅛ inch; consequently, Smith s religious exercise was not substantially burdened.[3] Owens argued in the alternative that, even if the grooming policy substantially burdened Smith's religious exercise, it furthered compelling governmental interests in security, discipline, hygiene, and safety by the least restrictive means.

         Responding in opposition, Smith noted the inconsistency between allowing a medical exception to the grooming policy but refusing religious accommodation. He argued such an inconsistency demonstrated the GDOC was not employing the least restrictive means of furthering its interests. In support, he identified an alternative, less restrictive option:

An alternative for both parties would be to revise the G.D.O.C. grooming policy to allow not only muslims, but all inmates to grow a beard no longer than ¼ . . . inch, with respect to all other religions who are required to wear a beard. This would be an absolute less restrictive means that addresses and resolves the State's underlying interests, security, safety, and health concerns.

Doc. 117-1 at 3. He reiterated this alternative in what he styled as a "settlement offer." Doc. 122 at 2.

         The magistrate judge recommended granting Owens' motion for summary judgment. In his Report and Recommendation, the magistrate judge reasoned that Smith failed to present specific evidence of a substantial burden because Smith was able to grow a ⅛-inch beard in accordance with the grooming policy's medical exception. Doc. 124 at 6. The magistrate judge also concluded Owens demonstrated that the grooming policy furthered several compelling governmental interests-security, discipline, hygiene, sanitation, and safety-by the least restrictive means. Doc. 124 at 7-9. The district court adopted the Report and Recommendation and entered judgment in favor of Owens. Doc. 125.

         Smith appealed pro se. While Smith's appeal was pending, the Supreme Court held in Holt v. Hobbs that the Arkansas Department of Corrections' grooming policy violated RLUIPA insofar as it prevented the plaintiff from growing a ½-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. 574 U.S. ___, ___, 135 S.Ct. 853, 867, 190 L.Ed.2d 747 (2015). The GDOC then revised its grooming policy to allow all inmates to grow a beard of up to ½ inch.

         Smith grew a ½-inch beard after the policy revision, and Owens moved to dismiss Smith's appeal as moot, arguing Smith had received the relief he sought. We denied Owens' motion to dismiss, appointed Smith counsel, and ordered new briefing.[4]


         Mootness is a question of law that we consider de novo. Troiano v. Supervisor of Elections, 382 F.3d 1276, ...

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