Atheist parolee wins federal appeal, is entitled to damages in rights case

Published: Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013 - 9:20 am

An atheist parolee who was sent back to prison after he balked at participating in a religious-oriented drug treatment program must receive monetary compensation, a federal appellate court ruled Friday.

The ruling overturned the verdict of a Sacramento jury, which decided that Barry A. Hazle Jr. was not entitled to monetary damages, even though his constitutional rights had been violated.

Hazle did a year in state prison on a drug conviction. When he got out, his parole agent, over Hazle's strong objections, forced him to enter a treatment program that required acknowledgment of a higher power.

Hazle continued to complain, so he was removed from the program and arrested. His parole was revoked and he was thrown back in prison for an additional three months and 10 days.

In September 2008, Hazle sued California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials. Six weeks later, the department issued a directive that parole agents may not compel a parolee to take part in religious-themed programs. A parolee who objects should be referred to nonreligious treatment, the directive said, citing federal case law.

U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. found that Hazle's forced participation in the program ran "afoul of the prohibition against the state's favoring religion in general over non-religion," thus violating rights guaranteed him by the Constitution.

But, when the case went to trial on the issue of money, the jury refused to award damages for his loss of liberty and emotional distress.

Burrell denied Hazle's motion for a new trial, ruling he had forfeited a challenge to the verdict by not objecting before the jury was discharged, and that the jury did not find a specific defendant responsible for damages.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Burrell is wrong on multiple issues.

Citing a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, the panel declared that awarding compensatory damages in a civil rights action is not a matter of discretion.

Quoting the high court, the panel said, "Compensatory damages … are mandatory; once liability is found, the jury is required to award … damages in an amount appropriate to compensate the plaintiff for his loss."

The appellate judges sent the case back to Burrell for a new damages trial, and they directed Burrell to instruct the jury that Hazle is entitled to damages. The three judges also said it doesn't make any difference that the jury did not fix responsibility on individual corrections officials named as defendants because they are jointly responsible for the damages.

The panel further ruled that Hazle is entitled to a new trial as to emotional distress damages because of erroneous instructions on the law given to the jury by Burrell, and because the verdict form was flawed.

"It's a great day," exclaimed Hazle, a 45-year-old computer technician, when reached Friday by phone at his home in Redding. "Justice has been served. Now, at least, we'll get a fair trial."

The 33-page opinion was authored by Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt, with the concurrences of Circuit Judges Dorothy W. Nelson and Milan D. Smith Jr.

The panel also reversed Burrell's ruling that let defendant Westcare California Inc. off the hook.

The company contracts with CDCR to coordinate drug treatment for parolees in an area that includes Shasta County.

There is "a genuine issue of material fact" whether Westcare contributed to the violation of Hazle's constitutional rights when it chose to contract with treatment facilities offering only religious-based programs, and when it arranged for Hazle to attend one despite knowing he is an atheist who had objected to such a program.

Finally, the panel reversed Burrell's denial of an injunction blocking the expenditure of state funds on an unconstitutional practice. Burrell concluded the request was mooted by CDCR's 2008 directive forbidding forced attendance at religious-based programs.

The evidence, however, is that "the defendants do not appear to have taken any concrete steps to prevent other parolees from suffering the same constitutional violations Hazle suffered," the three appellate judges said.

Westcare's culpability and possible nonenforcement of the directive were sent back to Burrell "for further consideration."

Call The Bee's Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.

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