Epps v. Grannis et al

Filing 139

ORDER Granting Defendants' 128 Motion for Summary Judgment. Signed by Judge Roger T. Benitez on 9/21/2013. (All non-registered users served via U.S. Mail Service)(knb)

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1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 9 SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA 10 11 OMAR ERNEST EPPS, vs. Case No. 10cv1949 BEN (KSC) Plaintiff, ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS’ MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT 12 13 N. GRANNIS, et al., Defendants. 14 15 16 I. INTRODUCTION Plaintiff Omar Ernest Epps, a prisoner at California’s Calipatria State Prison 17 proceeding pro se, filed a First Amended Complaint on February 26, 2011. In his 18 Amended Complaint he named fourteen defendants in six counts alleging fifteen 19 claims for relief. 20 Plaintiff’s claims for relief were grouped into two categories: (a) the § 1983 21 claims; and (b) the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 22 (“RLUIPA”) claims. Previously, all of the § 1983 claims were dismissed against all 23 of the Defendants except the claim in Count Five against Defendant Meister in his 24 individual capacity. At the same time the civil rights claims were dismissed, an 25 Order to Show Cause was issued because it appeared that the RLUIPA claims might 26 be moot. After both parties filed responses, the Court found that some of the 27 28 -1- 1 RLUIPA claims were, in fact, moot. However, the RLUIPA claim in Count 2 about 2 a prison policy of denying Plaintiff a Kosher diet, the RLUIPA claim in Count 5 3 about a prison policy on Plaintiff’s purchasing through religious vendors, and the 4 RLUIPA claim in Count 6 about a policy of retaining Plaintiff’s confiscated 5 religious books described a continuing case or controversy and so the Court set the 6 claims to be tried on the merits. The Defendants have now moved for summary 7 judgment on each of these remaining claims. 8 9 As an introductory matter, it is noted that Plaintiff has recently notified the Court of a change of address. He indicates that he is no longer housed at Calipatria 10 State Prison. The new address is Centinela State Prison. See Notice filed September 11 9, 2013 (docket no. 138). As a result of the move, his RLUIPA claims seeking 12 injunctive relief are probably moot. “An inmate’s release from prison while his 13 claims are pending generally will moot any claims for injunctive relief relating to the 14 prison’s policies unless the suit has been certified as a class action.” Alvarez v. Hill, 15 667 F.3d 1061, 1064 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting Dilley v. Gunn, 64 F.3d 1365, 1368 (9th 16 Cir. 1995)). The same is true for a transfer from one prison to another. Rendelman 17 v. Rouse, 569 F.3d 182, 186 (4th Cir. 2009) (“[A]s a general rule, a prisoner’s 18 transfer or release from a particular prison moots his claims for injunctive and 19 declaratory relief with respect to his incarceration there.”); Sossamon v. Lone Star 20 State of Texas, 560 F.3d 316, 325-26 (5th Cir. 2009). “The reasons for finding 21 mootness in such a context are clear. Once an inmate is removed from the 22 environment in which he is subjected to the challenged policy or practice, absent a 23 claim for damages, he no longer has a legally cognizable interest in a judicial 24 decision on the merits of his claim.” Lee v. Gurney, Case No. 3:08cv99, 2010 WL 25 5113782, at *10 (E.D. Va. Dec. 9, 2010) (dismissing RLUIPA claim upon plaintiff’s 26 transfer to different prison). However, even if the claims are not moot because of his 27 transfer, they fail for other reasons. 28 -2- 1 II. DISCUSSION 2 Summary judgment must be granted where the record shows “there is no 3 genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a 4 matter of law.” FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 5 317, 322 (1986). The moving party must “persuade the court that there is no 6 genuine issue of material fact.” Nissan Fire & Marine Ins. Co., Ltd. v. Fritz Cos., 7 Inc., 210 F.3d 1099, 1102 (9th Cir. 2000). 8 A. The RLUIPA Claims 9 RLUIPA provides that a government generally shall not “impose a substantial 10 burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution.” 11 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a). This general prohibition is tempered. A burden is 12 permissible if it is not substantial or if it is in furtherance of a “compelling 13 government interest” and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. Id. 14 The standard is to be applied giving “‘due deference to the experience and expertise 15 of prison and jail administrators in establishing necessary regulations and procedures 16 to maintain good order, security and discipline, consistent with consideration of 17 costs and limited resources.’” Hartmann v. Cal. Dep’t of Corrections, 707 F.3d 18 1114, 1124 (9th Cir. 2013) (quoting Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709, 723 (2005)). 19 The plaintiff bears the initial burden of proof on whether a policy substantially 20 burdens his exercise of religion. Id. For a plaintiff who is incarcerated, the Ninth 21 Circuit Court of Appeals has held that, “a substantial burden occurs ‘where the state 22 . . . denies an important benefit because of conduct mandated by religious belief, 23 thereby putting substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to 24 violate his beliefs.’” Id. at 1125 (quoting Warsoldier v. Woodford, 418 F.3d 989, 995 25 (9th Cir. 2005). If the Plaintiff bears his initial burden, then the burden shifts to the 26 government. “Once the plaintiff establishes that the challenged state action 27 substantially burdens his religious exercise, the government bears the burden of 28 -3- 1 establishing that the regulation serves a compelling government interest and is the 2 least restrictive means of achieving that interest.” Shakur v. Schriro, 514 F.3d 878, 3 889 (9th Cir. 2008). 4 1. Named Defendants Lack Authority 5 The first question Defendants pose is about their limited official authority to 6 change the policies Plaintiff challenges. RLUIPA does not provide for awards of 7 money damages against prison officials. Alvarez, 667 F.3d at 1063 (RLUIPA does 8 not provide for damages against state officials); Holley v. Cal. Dep’t of Corr., 599 9 F.3d 1108, 1114 (9th Cir. 2010) (same); Rendelman v. Rouse, 569 F.3d 182, 189 (4th 10 Cir. 2009) (RLUIPA does not provide for damages against individual capacity 11 defendants for denial of Kosher meals); Sossamon v. Lone Star State of Texas, 560 12 F.3d 316, 329 (5th Cir. 2009) (RLUIPA does not provide for damages against 13 individual capacity defendants); Nelson v. Miller, 570 F.3d 868, 889 (7th Cir. 2009) 14 (same); Smith v. Allen, 502 F.3d 1255, 1275 (11th Cir. 2007) (same). On the other 15 hand, RLUIPA may provide injunctive relief. 16 To win injunctive relief, a plaintiff need not prove a named official’s personal 17 involvement in the alleged RLUIPA violation. Hartmann, 707 F.3d at 1127. 18 Instead, a plaintiff must name as a defendant a government official who can 19 appropriately respond and change policy if injunctive relief is ordered. Id. (“Rather, 20 a plaintiff need only identify the law or policy challenged as a constitutional 21 violation and name the official within the entity who can appropriately respond to 22 injunctive relief.” (emphasis added)). 23 Plaintiff has named a large number of prison officials as Defendants. 24 However, Defendants have presented numerous declarations demonstrating that 25 none of the sued Defendants have authority to change their actions or change the 26 prison policies of which Plaintiff complains. 27 Some Defendants have retired from their positions with the state prison 28 -4- 1 system. More have transferred away from the prison where Plaintiff is incarcerated. 2 Those who still work at Calipatria State Prison have neither the authority to change 3 departmental policies or procedures nor the power to change, circumvent, or act 4 contrary to those policies – according to the current Acting Warden, F. Chavez. See 5 Declaration of F. Chavez, dated July 31, 2013 (Exhibit “G” to Defendants’ Motion 6 for Summary Judgment). Plaintiff submits no evidence to the contrary beyond his 7 own “understanding.” In Hartmann, the Ninth Circuit permitted RLUIPA claims to 8 proceed against two individuals who did have authority to carry out injunctive relief, 9 i.e., the Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and the Warden of the 10 plaintiff’s prison. 707 F.3d at 1127 & n.2 (defendants admitted Secretary of CDCR 11 and Warden were most appropriate defendants to execute court-ordered injunctive 12 relief). Here, Epps has named neither the Secretary of the California Department of 13 Corrections, nor the Warden of Calipatria State Prison. Therefore, Defendants’ joint 14 motion for summary judgment on the RLUIPA claims is granted because there is no 15 genuine issue as to each Defendant’s lack of authority to execute any possible 16 RLUIPA court-ordered relief. 17 2. The Halal/Kosher Diet Claim 18 Even if Plaintiff had sued a proper defendant, the defendant would be entitled 19 to summary judgment. For example, Count Two asserts that the prison denies 20 Plaintiff a Kosher diet. Prison policy provides for a Kosher diet for inmates of the 21 Jewish faith. However, Plaintiff has asserted not that he is Jewish, but Muslim. He 22 is provided a “Religious Meat Alternative” (“RMA”) diet; it is a diet designed to be 23 respectful of practicing Muslims. “The RMA diet was designed to conform to the 24 Islamic faith. It includes Islamic Halal meat for dinner and vegetarian meals for 25 breakfast and lunch.” See Declaration of S. Andersen (Associate Warden), dated 26 July 30, 2013 (Exhibit “F” to Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment). In his 27 opposition, Plaintiff cites his deposition evidencing that he has been receiving the 28 -5- 1 RMA diet, but questions whether it is in fact a Halal diet. See Opposition of 2 Plaintiff, at 16. 3 While he offers reasons for why he questions whether the RMA diet is Halel, 4 he does not go further and declare that the prison’s provision of the RMA diet has 5 pressured Plaintiff to abandon his religious beliefs. Instead, like the unsuccessful 6 plaintiffs in Hartmann, “[r]ather than claiming [he] has been pressured to abandon 7 [his] religious beliefs, Plaintiff[] seek[s] additional religious accommodations 8 beyond those already provided by the prison. . . .” 707 F.3d at 1125. 9 Epps claims that he is entitled to a Kosher diet because, he says, a Kosher diet 10 is also Halal. In his Amended Complaint Epps says that the RMA diet causes him 11 chronic constipation, persistent gas, bloating, abdominal cramps, and chest pains, 12 “all of which places [him] in a state of ritual impurity.” The Complaint suggests the 13 Kosher diet would relieve all of that. Except that there is no evidence in the record 14 about whether a Kosher diet would have any effect on his physical condition. Epps 15 offers only his own speculation that a Kosher diet would cure his gastrointesinal 16 maladies. There is no evidence that Epps has either presented his physical 17 complaints to medical staff or that medical staff have prescribed a Kosher diet to 18 address his ills. 19 Epps’ claim stands in contrast to the plaintiff’s claim in Shakur v. Schriro. In 20 Shakur, the prisoner was not offered a Halal diet. Instead, he was offered only a 21 vegetarian diet with no meat. Shakur, 514 F.3d at 881. The other contrast is that in 22 Shakur, the only evidence of the expense of a kosher meal was from a prison 23 chaplain. Id. at 889-90. Here, Defendants provide a declaration from the 24 Correctional Food Manager at Calipatria explaining that the cost of a RMA diet is 25 $3.10/day while a Kosher diet costs the prison $8.70/day per inmate. See 26 Declaration of A. Covarrubias, dated July 31, 2013 (Exhibit “H” to Defendants’ 27 Motion for Summary Judgment). There are 176 inmates receiving the RMA diet 28 -6- 1 while only 6 receive the Kosher diet. Id. The food manager also states that, 2 “[i]nmates who suffer from physical ailments because of their diet may obtain an 3 order from a physician that directs the food management team to alter their diet to 4 resolve the problem.” Id. 5 This is sufficient uncontested evidence to demonstrate that the Defendants’ 6 provision of a RMA diet is the least restrictive means of furthering its interests in 7 containing the costs of simultaneously feeding inmates and accommodating inmates’ 8 religious beliefs. Epps simply seeks an additional accommodation beyond what the 9 prison provides. There is, of course, no issue raised about whether Epps’ religious 10 belief is sincerely held. However, he has not submitted evidence creating a genuine 11 issue about whether his religious belief has been substantially burdened or showing 12 that if it has been, that there is no compelling interest for the burden or that there is 13 another less restrictive means available to serve the compelling interest. Defendants 14 are entitled to summary judgment on Count Two. 15 3. The Quarterly Package Policy 16 Even if Plaintiff had sued a proper defendant, the defendant would be entitled 17 to summary judgment on Count Five challenging the quarterly package policy. 18 Under the policy, an inmate may order products or food once a quarter to be 19 received in prison. Any time packages from outside a prison are delivered to an 20 inmate inside a prison, the package presents security and safety concerns. To 21 ameliorate those concerns, inmates may order from approved vendors who agree to 22 work with the prison. “[T]he religious purchase policy works to limit the 23 introduction of contraband into the institution by pre-approving vendors who are 24 willing to meet specific requirements designed to ensure safety and security.” See 25 Declaration of S. Andersen (Associate Warden), dated July 30, 2013 (Exhibit “F” to 26 Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment). In addition, an inmate may order a 27 religious item from a non-approved vendor if a Chaplain approves. The item then 28 -7- 1 must pass a safety analysis. Id. These extra packages for religious items do not 2 count against an inmates’ quarterly package allowance. Id. 3 In Count Five, Plaintiff claims that a package from an exclusively Muslim 4 vendor should fall under the extra religious package exception. Epps submits his 5 own declaration and the declaration of Brandon Holsey (a Calipatria inmate). He 6 describes how, in his opinion, the prison does not comply with state regulations and 7 the department operation manual. Yet, Epps does not go further and declare that the 8 prison’s quarterly package policy has pressured Plaintiff to abandon his religious 9 beliefs. Instead, like the unsuccessful plaintiffs in Hartmann, “[r]ather than claiming 10 [he] has been pressured to abandon [his] religious beliefs, Plaintiff[] seek[s] 11 additional religious accommodations beyond those already provided by the prison. . . 12 .” 707 F.3d at 1125. Summary judgment is the time for each party to present 13 evidence sufficient to carry their own burden of proof or cast substantial doubt on 14 the other’s proof. Here, Plaintiff’s proof that the policy works a substantial burden 15 is lacking. Also lacking is any evidence that the quarterly package policy does not 16 serve a compelling government interest by a least restrictive means. There is 17 evidence that permitting inmates to receive packages through the mail implicates 18 security and safety concerns. One way to maintain security is to prohibit all 19 packages. The prison has a more generous policy. The more generous policy does 20 not impose a substantial burden on Epps’ religious practice. Defendants are entitled 21 to summary judgment on Count Five. See also Davis v. Powell, 901 F. Supp. 2d 22 1196, 1232 (S.D. Cal. 2012) (dismissing RLUIPA claim that California prison 23 quarterly package policy may have made purchases from favorite vendor more 24 difficult, but did not rise to a substantial burden). 25 Written Materials 26 4. Seized Religious Here again, even if Plaintiff had sued the proper Defendants, the Defendants 27 would be entitled to judgment on Count Six challenging the seizure and retention of 28 -8- 1 some of Plaintiff’s religious written materials. The defect in this claim for relief is 2 that it is now moot. According to the Amended Complaint, written materials were 3 seized from Epps’ cell in 2010. Some were religious papers; some were self-defense 4 papers. He does not complain of the withholding of the self-defense manual. He 5 does complain of the retention of the religious writings and seeks their return. 6 However, in his recent declaration, Epps states that the religious papers were 7 returned to him in November 2012. See Declaration of O. Epps, ¶ 56, dated August 8 15, 2013 (Attachment to Plaintiff’s Opposition to Motion for Summary Judgment). 9 Mootness is the doctrine of standing set in a time frame. That is, standing 10 “must continue throughout” the case. Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Envtl. 11 Servs. (TOC), Inc., 528 U.S. 167, 189 (2000); Sanford v. MemberWorks, Inc., 625 12 F.3d 550, 556 (9th Cir. 2010). Because Epps’ materials have been returned to him 13 (albeit two years after they were first seized) and there is no other evidence that the 14 prison has a policy of seizing and retaining an inmate’s religious writings or that 15 Epps’ same papers will be re-seized in the future, this RLUIPA claim is moot. “A 16 claim is moot when the issues presented are no longer live.” Alvarez, 667 F.3d at 17 1064 (citations omitted) (finding moot a prisoner’s RLUIPA claim). 18 B. The § 1983 Claim Against Defendant Meister 19 Count Five stated a claim against Defendant Meister acting in his individual 20 capacity. Epps claims that Meister deprived him of a special package mailed to him 21 for the observance of Ramadan in 2008. According to the Complaint, Ramadan took 22 place during September and October 2008, ending on October 2, 2008. Epps claims 23 that a Ramadan package addressed to him arrived at the prison on October 10th but 24 Meister refused acceptance of the package. He claims the refusal was in violation of 25 a prison policy that permitted inmates to receive Ramadan packages as late as ten 26 days after the end of Ramadan. The package was eventually returned to the sender. 27 Epps claims that he was denied “the expression of my religion through eating 28 -9- 1 Halal/Kosher foods.” He seeks $318 in damages from Defendant Meister “for 2 inappropriately refusing to accept plaintiff’s special religious Ramadan package.” 3 In order to establish a First Amendment violation, Epps must prove that 4 Defendant Meister “burdened the practice of his religion, by preventing him from 5 engaging in conduct mandated by his faith, without any justification reasonably 6 related to legitimate penological interests.” Freeman v. Arpaio, 125 F.3d 732, 736 7 (9th Cir. 1997) (citing Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 89 (1987)). Defendant Meister 8 points out several shortcomings in Plaintiff’s evidence. First, there is a lack of 9 evidence that Meister burdened Epps’ practice of his religion. There is no question 10 that Epps’ package arrived on October 10, 2008, at the earliest. That was a week 11 after the observance of Ramadan had concluded. If Meister had picked up and not 12 rejected the package on the 10th day of October, it would still have been too late for 13 Epps’ Ramadan observance. That the prison had a policy of accepting Ramadan 14 packages for several days after Ramadan had ended is more than what is required by 15 Epps’ faith. That the policy may not have been followed does not make it a First 16 Amendment violation. Moreover, Epps offers no evidence about what he expected 17 to find in the contents of the returned package. He does declare, without explaining 18 the connection, that he was deprived of “the use and benefit of the Halal and Kosher 19 meat and fish.” See Declaration of O. Epps, ¶ 19, dated August 15, 2013 20 (Attachment to Plaintiff’s Opposition to Motion for Summary Judgment). Even at 21 that, Epps does not explain how meat and fish were mandated by his religion on 22 October 10th or later, after Ramadan had ended. 23 Second, Epps offers no evidence to cast doubt on the explanation that 24 Meister’s actions were reasonably related to legitimate penological interests. As 25 noted earlier, mail packages to inmates present issues of prison safety and security. 26 There is no evidence suggesting Meister was acting out of personal animus or an 27 institutional policy designed to deter Epps from practicing his faith. 28 - 10 - 1 More importantly, the evidence paints a different picture in which Meister 2 never had a chance to reject Epps’ Ramadan package on October 10, 2008. Meister 3 offers the declaration of Sgt. B. Bentley who worked as the mail room Sergeant 4 during October 2008. See Declaration of B. Bentley, dated July 30, 2013 (Exhibit 5 “I” to Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment). Bentley explains that he would 6 travel to the local post office Monday through Friday, arriving between 9:00 a.m. 7 and 9:30 a.m. to pick up mail addressed for Calipatria State Prison. He says he did 8 this on October 10, 2008 and left between 10:00 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Bentley says 9 that days later he informed Plaintiff that a package had arrived at the local post 10 office at 11:09 a.m. on Friday, October 10, 2008 -- after he had already returned to 11 the prison. Bentley says that there was no mail picked up on either Saturday or 12 Sunday following Friday, October 10, 2008, as was the usual custom. The inference 13 is that Meister could not have rejected Epps’ package on October 10, 2008, because 14 the package had not yet been brought to the prison. 15 The inference is borne out by Meister’s own declaration. Meister recalls that 16 he worked in the mail room at the prison in 2008. See Declaration of W. Meister, 17 dated July 26, 2013 (Exhibit “Q” to Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment). 18 Meister says, “I know that I never personally rejected a Ramadan package intended 19 for Plaintiff on or before October 12, 2008.” Id. He explains that during the 20 following week he filled out a form with the remark: “Ramadan expired 10-10-08.” 21 Meister offers that he believed the period for inmates to receive Ramadan packages 22 ended on October 10, 2008. Id. Meister’s memory comports with that of inmate 23 Brandon Holsey, according to a declaration submitted by Plaintiff. The Court is not 24 weighing competing evidence. It finds that there is no genuine issue because all of 25 the evidence is consistent. Plaintiff’s package was not picked up from the local post 26 office on October 10, 11, or 12. Likewise, Defendant Meister, who worked only 27 inside the prison mail room, did not have the opportunity to reject Plaintiff’s 28 - 11 - 1 package on October 10, 11, or 12. There is no evidence demonstrating that Meister 2 personally burdened Epps’ religious practice. There is evidence that Meister was 3 simply acting in accordance with prison policy reasonably related to legitimate 4 penological interests. Therefore, Defendant Meister, sued in his individual capacity, 5 is entitled to summary judgment on Count Five. 6 III. CONCLUSION 7 Defendant Meister is entitled to summary judgment on the § 1983 claim 8 against him. The remaining RLUIPA claims may now be moot as a result of 9 Plaintiff’s prison transfer. Even if all of the RLUIPA claims are not moot, the claim 10 in Count Six challenging the seizure and retention of some of Plaintiff’s religious 11 written materials is now moot. Finally, even if the claim in Count Six is not moot, 12 Defendants are entitled to summary judgment on all of the RLUIPA claims. 13 Plaintiff has not prevailed on any of his claims and judgment may be entered in 14 favor of all Defendants. The Clerk of Court may close the case. 15 16 IT IS SO ORDERED. DATED: September 21, 2013 17 18 Hon. Roger T. Benitez United States District Judge 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 - 12 -

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