Mooting the Appeal: Eleventh Circuit Finds Automatic Expiration of Preliminary Injunction by Statute Moots an Appeal of the Injunction

In United States v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections, No. 14-10086 (Feb. 27, 2015), the Eleventh Circuit dismissed Florida’s appeal of the preliminary injunction leveled against it and vacated the district court for the Southern District of Florida’s orders entering and clarifying the injunction.

The injunction itself arose after a series of legal battles between the state of Florida and the United States. In August of 2012, the United States filed a civil suit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) alleging that the state of Florida failed to provide a kosher diet program to its prisoners with sincere religious grounds for the diet. Florida then issued a new policy, formally known as “Procedure 503.006,” which would cater to prisoner’s kosher diet but included provisions relating to prisoner eligibility for the diet. The contested provisions include a “sincerity test” (to determine initial eligibility) and the “zero tolerance rule” (disqualifying any prisoner from receiving kosher meals if they are found to be bartering in kosher foods or if they are found to possess food(s) that are not kosher). The United States filed a motion for preliminary injunction to prevent any provisions from entering into force to the extent that it violates RLUIPA. The district court granted the motion to which Florida filed an interlocutory appeal.

The Eleventh Circuit first noted that a suit challenging prison conditions under RLUIPA is governed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which provides that a preliminary injunction will automatically expire after 90 days from issuance unless the court makes findings as required under the statute or makes the order final. The court then found that the district court did not meet either of these steps and thus the preliminary injunction expired on March 6, 2014.

After finding that the injunction expired, the court then addressed whether the expiration of the preliminary injunction renders the appeal by the state of Florida moot. As an expired preliminary injunction no longer has any legal effect on the parties, any decision either affirming or vacating the injunction does not matter as it does not affect the legal rights of the parties.

The court briefly considered whether an exception to the mootness doctrine could redeem the action and considered the “capable of repetition, yet evading review” exception. The exception was found not to apply because there is no reasonable expectation that should these issues repeat, the injunction would expire before reaching the court on appeal. Thus, the Eleventh Circuit dismissed Florida’s appeal of the preliminary injunction as it is now moot and vacated the district court’s orders entering the preliminary injunction.

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