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Case Name Ajaj v. Federal Bureau of Prisons PC-CO-0031
Docket / Court 1:15-cv-00992-RBJ-KLM ( D. Colo. )
State/Territory Colorado
Case Type(s) Prison Conditions
Attorney Organization University of Denver Civil Rights Clinic
Case Summary
On May 11, 2015, a Muslim prisoner filed this lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado. The plaintiff sued the Federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) and the Warden of Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Security Prison (“ADX”), where the plaintiff was ... read more >
On May 11, 2015, a Muslim prisoner filed this lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado. The plaintiff sued the Federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) and the Warden of Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Security Prison (“ADX”), where the plaintiff was incarcerated. Represented by the Civil Rights Clinic of the University of Denver-Sturm College of Law, the plaintiff brought his claims under Bivens and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (“RFRA”). He alleged that the prison’s practice of distributing his medication between 6:00 am and 6:00 pm during Ramadan – in violation of his religious faith – violated his rights under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause and under the RFRA. He sought declaratory and injunctive relief. The case was ultimately assigned to Judge R. Brooke Jackson.

On October 9, 2015, the plaintiff filed a substantially more detailed amended complaint. This complaint added several defendants, including individual wardens, medical staff members, and chaplains at the prison in their official and individual capacities, as well as the United States of America. It also expanded the relief sought. The plaintiff asked for: broader declaratory and injunctive relief requiring the defendants to respect his religious exercise, compensatory and punitive damages for the BOP’s “malicious and/or reckless deprivation” of his right to exercise his religion, and damages for the defendants’ failure to provide proper medical care because of his beliefs. He asked that the defendants be required to provide him Halal meals and to permit him to engage in group prayer. In the statement of facts, the plaintiff described specific examples of times that the defendants had intentionally disrespected his religion, such as mocking him and throwing the Holy Quran in the trash. He still alleged that the defendants’ actions had violated his First Amendment and RFRA rights, but he also added allegations stating violations of the Federal Tort Claims Act and the Fifth Amendment Equal Protection Clause.

On February 10, 2016, the defendants filed three separate motions to dismiss. First, the United States argued that the plaintiff’s tort claim for the alleged failure to provide proper medical care should be dismissed because the plaintiff failed to exhaust the remedies available before filing the lawsuit. Second, the Official-Capacity Defendants argued that the injunctive relief claims should be dismissed for failure to state a claim, and that the medication administration claim should be dismissed as moot because the prison had accommodated Plaintiff for the 2015 Ramadan. Third, the Individual-Capacity Defendants alleged that they were protected by qualified immunity. These were referred to Magistrate Judge Kristen L. Mix.

On August 30, 2016, Magistrate Judge Mix recommended that the court grant in part and deny in part these motions. Judge Jackson adopted the recommendation on October 25, 2016. 2016 WL 6212518. This dismissed without prejudice the plaintiff’s medication during Ramadan claim and dismissed with prejudice the plaintiff’s Fifth Amendment (as to access to an Imam) claims against the Individual-Defendants. The plaintiff’s First Amendment and RFRA claims against the Official-Defendants (as to a Halal Diet, access to an Imam, the Sunnah fasts, and group prayer), the plaintiff’s Fifth Amendment Equal Protection claim against the Official-Defendants, and the plaintiff’s Fifth Amendment claims against the Individual-Defendants remained.

Both parties moved for the Court to reconsider the August 30th order. On January 17, 2017, Judge Jackson granted the defendants’ motion but denied the plaintiffs’ motion. 2017 WL 219343. Therefore, all of the plaintiff’s claims against Individual-Defendants were dismissed.

Meanwhile, the parties had been engaging in discovery and preparing for trial for the remaining claims against the Official-Defendants. In December 2016, the court set a two-week jury trial for January 8, 2018. But on May 9, 2017, Judge Jackson referred the parties to the Magistrate Judge for a settlement conference. Presumably based on these settlement talks, the trial dates were pushed back.

These settlement talks failed, and on November 20, 2017, the BOP moved for partial summary judgment on the plaintiff’s Sunnah fasting claims, arguing that the plaintiff had failed to exhaust the remedies available before bringing the lawsuit.

On December 5, 2017, Judge Jackson denied the defendant’s motion for partial summary judgment. Although the order is not available, the docket states, “Since the parties appear to be largely starting over, and since there appears to be the possibility that changes within the BOP might moot the case, the Court elects not to address motions at this time.”

In January 2018, the defendants transferred the plaintiff to a new prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. In a status report filed by the plaintiff on January 30, 2018, the plaintiff’s attorneys notified the court that the defendants had been unwilling to grant them access to communicate with their client since the transfer. They had no information on the conditions of confinement at the new prison. The attorneys speculated that the defendants had made this transfer in an attempt to deprive the court of jurisdiction in the matter. The plaintiffs then attempted to use this transfer as an opportunity to file a supplemental complaint.

On April 10, 2018, Judge Jackson held that the transfer neither mooted the claim nor allowed the plaintiffs to file a supplemental complaint.

On April 18 the parties jointly agreed to dismiss the plaintiff’s First Amendment claim.

The parties then began again to prepare for trial. On August 1, 2018, Judge Jackson issued an order addressing numerous pretrial motions. 2018 WL 3647915. He denied the plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment seeking private regular access to an Imam, holding that this presented too great of a security risk. He denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss for improper venue and failure to exhaust. He granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss claims as to procedures that applied to ADX but not to Terre Haute as there was no reason to believe that the plaintiff would return to ADX.

At this point in the case, the Federal Bureau of Prisons was the only remaining defendant, with the remaining claims consisting of two RFRA claims. One challenged the defendant’s alleged failure to provide the plaintiff with a Halal diet and the other challenged the defendant’s failure to provide the plaintiff with access to an Imam.

On August 20-21, 2018, the Acting Director of the Bureau of Prisons asked the Warden at Terre Haute to provide Halal meals for the plaintiff. Within four days, the prison began providing the plaintiff with these meals.

Similarly, just days before trial, the prison hired an Imam to provide classes at the prison. The plaintiff, who is a Sunni Muslim, opposed this Imam because he believed (seemingly incorrectly according to the court’s final order) that the new Imam was Sufi and therefore inconsistent with his beliefs.

A bench trial was held on August 27, 2018.

On September 13, 2018, Judge Jackson held that the plaintiff’s Halal diet claims had been resolved, but noted that this had only occurred on the eve of trial after years of litigation. 2018 WL 4356787. He required that the meals continue past the lawsuit barring “compelling governmental interests.” He further held that defendant’s hiring of an Imam, however unsatisfactory to the plaintiff, had satisfied the defendant’s duty.

Finally, Judge Jackson held that the plaintiff was the prevailing party, and could be awarded attorney’s fees under the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fee Awards Act of 1976.

Litigation continued as to the appropriate amount for these fees. During the course of this litigation, on October 12, 2018, the defendant filed a motion to alter judgment to reflect that they had satisfied their duty by hiring the Imam. The court issued an amended final judgment on April 15, 2019 that ruled in favor of the defendants on this matter and left all other issues resolved in favor of the plaintiff.

The plaintiff appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals on this issue, and as of April 5, 2020 was awaiting a ruling. This case is ongoing.

Gabriela Hybel - 09/23/2018
Alex Moody - 04/05/2020

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Issues and Causes of Action
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Constitutional Clause
Equal Protection
Free Exercise Clause
Religion discrimination
Conditions of confinement
Food service / nutrition / hydration
Informed consent/involuntary medication
Religious programs / policies
Plaintiff Type
Private Plaintiff
Type of Facility
Causes of Action Ex Parte Young (Federal) or Bivens
Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 U.S.C. § 2674
Religious Freedom Rest. Act/Religious Land Use and Inst. Persons Act (RFRA/RLUIPA)
Defendant(s) Administrative Maximum Security Prison
Bureau of Prisons
Plaintiff Description An Muslim incarcerated individual
Indexed Lawyer Organizations University of Denver Civil Rights Clinic
Class action status sought No
Class action status outcome Not sought
Filed Pro Se No
Prevailing Party Plaintiff
Public Int. Lawyer Yes
Nature of Relief Injunction / Injunctive-like Settlement
Source of Relief Litigation
Filed 05/11/2015
Case Ongoing Yes
Additional Resources
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Court Docket(s)
D. Colo.
PC-CO-0031-9000.pdf | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
General Documents
D. Colo.
Complaint [ECF# 1]
PC-CO-0031-0001.pdf | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
D. Colo.
Amended Complaint [ECF# 29]
PC-CO-0031-0002.pdf | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
D. Colo.
Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge [ECF# 97]
PC-CO-0031-0003.pdf | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
D. Colo.
Order [ECF# 111] (2016 WL 6212518)
PC-CO-0031-0004.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
D. Colo.
Order [ECF# 135] (2017 WL 219343)
PC-CO-0031-0005.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
D. Colo.
Defendant's Status Report [ECF# 199]
PC-CO-0031-0006.pdf | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
D. Colo.
Order [ECF# 243] (2018 WL 3647915)
PC-CO-0031-0007.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
D. Colo.
Findings, Conclusions and Order of Judgment [ECF# 291] (2018 WL 4356787)
PC-CO-0031-0008.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
D. Colo.
Amended Final Judgment [ECF# 331]
PC-CO-0031-0009.pdf | Detail
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
show all people docs
Judges Jackson, Richard Brooke (D. Colo.) show/hide docs
PC-CO-0031-0004 | PC-CO-0031-0005 | PC-CO-0031-0007 | PC-CO-0031-0008 | PC-CO-0031-0009 | PC-CO-0031-9000
Mix, Kristen L. (D. Colo.) [Magistrate] show/hide docs
PC-CO-0031-0003 | PC-CO-0031-9000
Plaintiff's Lawyers Fontana, Lauren (Colorado) show/hide docs
PC-CO-0031-0001 | PC-CO-0031-9000
Giarratana, Ellen (Colorado) show/hide docs
Godfrey, Nicole Brianne (Colorado) show/hide docs
PC-CO-0031-0002 | PC-CO-0031-9000
Jefferis, Danielle C. (Colorado) show/hide docs
Killmer, Darold W. (Colorado) show/hide docs
Rovner, Laura Lee (Colorado) show/hide docs
Webb, Lindsey (Colorado) show/hide docs
PC-CO-0031-0001 | PC-CO-0031-9000
Defendant's Lawyers Bennett, Michelle Renee (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
Cook, Marcy Elizabeth (Colorado) show/hide docs
Cook, Clay C. (Colorado) show/hide docs
Dickey, Lauren Marie (Colorado) show/hide docs
Padden, Amy L. (Colorado) show/hide docs
Prose, Susan Begesse (Colorado) show/hide docs
PC-CO-0031-0006 | PC-CO-0031-9000
Traskos, Kevin Thomas (Colorado) show/hide docs

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