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Heard v. Finco

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

July 15, 2019

Lamont Bernard Heard, William M. Johnson, Jamero T. Moses, Anthony Lee Nelson, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
Tom Finco, Defendant, and Brad Purves, Dietician and Food Service Manager, Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan at Grand Rapids. No. 1:13-cv-00373-Gordon J. Quist, District Judge.

         ON BRIEF:

          Daniel Manville, CIVIL RIGHTS CLINIC, MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF LAW, East Lansing, Michigan, for Appellants.

          Patrick S. Myers, MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL'S OFFICE, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellee.

          Before: GUY, THAPAR, and NALBANDIAN, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          THAPAR, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         "[G]odliness has value for all things." 1 Timothy 4:8. But how do you quantify that value? See Quran 83:1 (M.A.S. Abdel Haleem trans., 2004) ("Woe to those who give short measure!"). In our legal system, we typically let the jury decide. And in this case, a jury determined that four Muslim inmates collectively suffered $900 in damages when prison officials did not provide them with adequate meals during Ramadan to accommodate their fasting. The inmates claim that the jury ignored the spiritual harms they suffered in making this calculation. The district court disagreed, and we affirm.

         I.

         Lamont Heard, William Johnson, Jamero Moses, and Anthony Nelson have at least two things in common: they all belong to the Nation of Islam, and they all are inmates in Michigan prisons. These two commonalities collided when the inmates wanted to observe Ramadan. Muslims around the world celebrate Ramadan as "the month in which the Islamic Holy Book, the Quran, was revealed." R. 370, Pg. ID 2922. Typically, Muslims commemorate Ramadan by fasting the entire month; they neither eat nor drink "from dawn to sunset." Id.

         Prison, however, makes that practice a challenge. At first, Michigan prisons provided Muslim inmates with one-and-a-half breakfast and dinner portions during Ramadan to accommodate their fasting. But that changed in 2009. That year, Muslim inmates noticed they were getting less food than usual during their meals. Less food meant fewer calories, and fewer calories made observing Ramadan more difficult. With fewer calories, Muslim inmates had a hard time concentrating on spiritual activities such as prayer and Quran readings. So the inmates sent a proposal to the Michigan Department of Corrections to rectify the issue. But prison officials refused to deviate from the "regular statewide menu." R. 370-1, Pg. ID 3069-70. They essentially told the inmates that their problems were their own fault; the regular menu was fine, and the inmates were not receiving the same caloric intake as usual because they were fasting.

         Frustrated by this response, the four inmates sued various prison officials. The inmates alleged that the officials violated the First and Eighth Amendments. A jury agreed and awarded damages: $150 for each Ramadan the prison officials disrupted. So Moses and Johnson received $150 each to compensate injuries suffered in 2012, while Heard and Nelson received a total of $300 each for injuries suffered in both 2011 and 2012. Collectively, then, the inmates received $900 in compensatory damages.

         Thinking this amount too low, the inmates filed a motion requesting a new trial on damages. The district court denied the motion because it found that the jury could have reached its conclusion based on the evidence. The inmates appealed.

         II.

         On appeal, the prison officials do not dispute that they violated the inmates' constitutional rights. Instead, this appeal involves how much compensation the inmates should have received as a result of those violations. More precisely, we review whether the district court abused its discretion in denying the inmates' motion for a new trial on damages. Anchor v. O'Toole, 94 F.3d 1014, 1021 (6th Cir. 1996). We will reverse the district court's decision only if the inmates "unquestionably" proved that they deserved more damages through "uncontradicted" and "undisputed" evidence. Id. But so long as "the verdict is supported by some ...


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