PUBLISHED:October 19, 2016

Appellate Litigation Clinic prevails in Third Circuit

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit handed down a favorable decision for Appellate Litigation Clinic client Charles Mack in his civil rights action on Oct. 11. The court’s opinion in Mack v. Yost et al is precedential.

The Third Circuit had appointed Clinical Professor Sean Andrussier ’92, who directs the clinic, to represent Mack, a federal inmate in Pennsylvania, in his appeal from a district court judgment dismissing his action.  Mack, a Muslim, alleged that correctional officers targeted him for harassment because of his religious beliefs which had a chilling effect on his religious exercise., When he complained to a supervisor about this mistreatment — an assault, ridicule, and incendiary anti-Muslim rhetoric — which constituted a violation of prison policy against religious-affiliation harassment, Mack was discharged from a favorable prison work assignment.

In the 2015-16 academic year, Andrussier supervised 3Ls John Bailey, Annie Showalter, and Russell Taylor as the team handled the appeal from briefing through oral argument. Taylor argued the case in Philadelphia last April before Chief Judge Theodore McKee and Circuit Judges Julio M. Fuentes and Jane R. Roth. The defendants were represented by the United States Attorney’s office in Pittsburgh. Judge Fuentes authored the court’s published opinion.

As the opinion notes, the case required the court to resolve several issues of first impression regarding the scope of both the First Amendment’s Petition Clause and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The court resolved these and other issues favorably for Mack in reversing the dismissal of his First Amendment retaliation claim and his RFRA claim.

With respect to the First Amendment, the court held, over a dissent, that the Petition Clause may protect an inmate’s informal, oral grievances to prison officials.  Regarding a separate claim based on religious-exercise rights, the court held that RFRA is an appropriate vehicle for relief when the challenged government action is an official’s individual misconduct, as opposed to a law, regulation, policy, or conduct pursuant to a law, regulation, or policy.  The court also held, as a matter of first impression, that RFRA allows the recovery of monetary relief from officers who commit unlawful conduct.  And the court agreed that Mack sufficiently alleged a substantial burden on his religious exercise.

The Third Circuit’s opinion expressed the court’s “gratitude to the Duke University law students who have done a commendable job representing Mack on appeal.” The court added: “We also applaud Mr. Russell Taylor for his impressive performance representing Mack at oral argument.”

“Arguing before the Third Circuit was the highlight of my Duke Law career,” said Taylor after the oral argument. “It was a privilege to represent our client before such a distinguished panel, and I am truly grateful for the boundless support of Professor Andrussier, my teammates, and the school.”  When he received news of the victory, he added, “This made my year!  I’m so incredibly proud of the work we did.” Taylor is now clerking for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

Andrussier said the client was thrilled with the clinic’s work, and the case exposed the students to the rigors of appellate practice as well as a broad range of constitutional and statutory issues.

“They had to master and apply an array of doctrines that would be covered in an intensive course on federal courts, while plunging into real-world appellate practice on behalf of our client,” he said.  “They sorted through a number of legal and tactical issues while working collectively to develop strategy and arguments.  It was a team effort all the way.” 

The teamwork made the experience particularly memorable for Showalter, who is clerking now for a federal district judge in Florida before embarking on a second clerkship for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. “Between the strong camaraderie and the intellectual rigor, no single experience has made me so excited to begin my career as a lawyer,” she said.

Bailey, who is now clerking for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, also commended the learning experience.  “To work on this complex appeal alongside such a talented team was a rigorous, rewarding, and meaningful endeavor,” Bailey said.

Duke’s Appellate Litigation Clinic has handled cases in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Fourth Circuit, and Third Circuit.