Venkataram v. United States Bureau of Prison et al
ORDER ON REPORT OF MAGISTRATE JUDGE for 45 Motion to Dismiss ; Adopting in Part 62 Report and Recommendations. Signed by Judge Robert N. Scola, Jr on 3/9/2018. (kpe)
United States District Court
Southern District of Florida
Natarajan Venkataram, Plaintiff,
Bureau of Prisons, and others,
Civil Action No. 16-24502-Civ-Scola
Order on Report of Magistrate Judge
This case was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Patrick A.
White, consistent with Administrative Order 2003-19 of this Court, for a ruling
on all pre-trial, nondispositive matters and for a Report and Recommendation
on any dispositive matters. On January 16, 2018, Judge White issued a report
recommending that, upon the Defendants’ motion to dismiss (ECF No. 45), the
Plaintiff’s Final Amended Complaint (ECF No. 17) be dismissed without leave to
amend. (Report of Magistrate Judge, ECF No. 62.) The Plaintiff did not file any
objections to Judge White’s report and the time to do so has passed.
The Court has considered Judge White’s report, the record, and the
relevant legal authorities. The Court adopts in part Judge White’s
recommendations and dismisses the Plaintiff’s complaint for lack of subject
1. Factual Background
The Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, has filed multiple versions of his
complaint with this Court. The Plaintiff’s latest and operative complaint, the
Final Amended Complaint, was filed on December 30, 2016. (Final Am. Compl.,
ECF No. 17.) The Plaintiff’s Final Amended Complaint names the following
Defendants: (1) the federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”); (2) B.H. Romero, the
Warden of the Miami Federal Prison Camp (“Miami-FPC”); (3) Tracie Jenkins,
the Supervisory Chaplain of Miami-FPC; (4) J. Hollingsworth, the Warden of the
Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution (“FCI-Ft. Dix”); and (5) Christine
Dynan, the Associate Warden of FCI-Ft. Dix. (Id. at ¶¶ 2–6.) The Plaintiff
generally alleges that he was denied dietary accommodations that met the
requirements of his Hindu faith while other inmates of other faiths were
granted such accommodations. (Id. at ¶ 9.) The Plaintiff also alleges that he
filed numerous grievances and exhausted his administrative remedies at both
FCI-Ft. Dix and FPC-Miami in an attempt to obtain meals that complied with
the strictures of his Hindu beliefs. (Id. ¶¶ 12–16.) Count One of the Amended
Complaint asserts a claim against the four individually named defendants for
violating the Plaintiff’s rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the
Constitution. (Id. ¶¶ 24–32.) Count Two asserts a claim against the BOP under
the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2674, et seq. (Id. ¶¶ 33–43.)
Count Three asserts a claim against the BOP under the Religious Freedom
Restoration Act (“RFRA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb, et seq. (Id. ¶¶ 44–50.) The
Plaintiff requests declaratory relief as well as compensatory and punitive
damages. (Id. ¶¶ 51–53.)
The Court previously reviewed a report and recommendation from Judge
White regarding the Plaintiff’s Final Amended Complaint (ECF No. 18) that was
issued upon an initial screening of the complaint in accordance with 28 U.S.C.
§ 1915. On February 27, 2017, the Court adopted in part and declined to adopt
in part that report. (Order on Report of Magistrate Judge, ECF No. 23.) The
Court adopted Judge White’s recommendations to: “(1) permit the Plaintiff’s
First Amendment and RFRA claims to proceed; (2) permit the Plaintiff’s request
for declaratory relief to proceed; (3) dismiss the Plaintiff’s Equal Protection,
Eighth Amendment, and FTCA claims; and (4) dismiss the Plaintiff’s requests
for compensatory and punitive damages.” (Id. at 4.) The Court declined to adopt
Judge White’s recommendation to dismiss Defendants Hollingsworth and
Dynan due to improper joinder. (Id.)
Following the Court’s order, the Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the
operative complaint. (Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss, ECF No. 45.) Plaintiff filed
a response in opposition (ECF No. 49), which the Defendants replied to (ECF
No. 50). Plaintiff filed a sur-reply. (Plaintiff’s Sur-reply, ECF No. 55.) On
January 16, 2018, Judge White issued a report and recommendation on the
Defendants’ motion to dismiss, in which he recommends the dismissal of the
Plaintiff’s complaint without leave to amend. (Report, ECF No. 62.)
2. Standard of Review
When reviewing a magistrate judge’s report and recommendation, a
district court must conduct a de novo review of “those portions of the
[magistrate judge’s] report or specified proposed findings or recommendations
to which objection[s] is made.” 28 U.S.C. § 636. If no objections are made, a
report may be adopted in full without the district court conducting a de novo
review. Instead, a district court must only ensure there is no clear error to
accept the recommendation. See Macort v. Prem, Inc., 208 F. App’x 781, 784
(11th Cir. 2006).
Judge White’s report recommends that: (1) the Plaintiff’s complaint be
dismissed because it is a “shotgun pleading” (Report, ECF No. 62 at 9–10); (2)
the Plaintiff’s claims against the individual defendants from FCI-Ft. Dix be
dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction (id. at 12–21); (3) the Plaintiff’s
claims against the individual defendants from Miami-FPC be dismissed for lack
of exhaustion of administrative remedies (id. at 21–28, 33–40); (4) any claim for
injunctive relief be dismissed as moot (id. at 41–42); (5) any attempt to request
nominal damages be denied (id. at 42–44); (6) the Plaintiff’s Bivens action
based on a violation of his First Amendment rights be dismissed (id. at 44–52);
and, (7) the Plaintiff’s RFRA claim be dismissed.
Although Judge White’s report is thorough, it entertains certain
arguments that were unnecessarily raised by the Defendants. As previously
noted, the Court permitted the Plaintiff to proceed only with a First
Amendment claim and the RFRA claim against the BOP for declaratory relief.
(Order, ECF No. 23 at 4.) As a result, the Court addresses and adopts only the
relevant portions of Judge White’s report.
A. Recommendation as to the Plaintiff’s First Amendment Claim
At the onset of his report, Judge White states that upon closer review of
the Final Amended Complaint, the Plaintiff did not allege a First Amendment
claim. (Report, ECF No. 62 at 6.) The Court agrees that the Plaintiff’s complaint
does not allege a First Amendment claim despite previous statements by the
Court suggesting otherwise. Although the Plaintiff may have alleged a First
Amendment claim in a previous iteration of his complaint, the Plaintiff’s failure
to include such a claim in his Final Amended Complaint prevents the Court
from allowing such a claim to proceed. Pintando v. Miami-Dade Hous. Agency,
501 F.3d 1241, 1243 (11th Cir. 2007) (“As a general matter, ‘[a]n amended
pleading supersedes the former pleading; the original pleading is abandoned by
the amendment, and is no longer a part of the pleader’s averments against his
adversary.’”) (quoting Dresdner Bank AG, Dresdner Bank AG in Hamburg v. M/V
OLYMPIA VOYAGER, 463 F.3d 1210, 1215 (11th Cir.2006)); Varnes v. Local 91,
Glass Bottle Blowers Ass’n of U.S. & Canada, 674 F.2d 1365, 1370 n.6 (11th
Cir. 1982) (“As a general rule, an amended complaint supersedes and replaces
the original complaint unless the amendment specifically refers to or adopts
the earlier pleading.”).
Nonetheless, Judge White provides a lengthy discussion on a First
Amendment claim, despite his initial recognition that no First Amendment
claim has been alleged in the Plaintiff’s complaint. (Report, ECF No. 62 at 50–
52.) The Court declines to adopt this discussion.
B. Recommendation as to the Plaintiff’s RFRA Claim
Judge White recommends that the Plaintiff’s RFRA claim be dismissed
and that any claim for injunctive relief should be dismissed as moot. (Report,
ECF No. 62 at 40–41, 52–55.) The Court considers Judge White’s discussion
on the mootness of claims seeking injunctive or declaratory relief applicable to
the Plaintiff’s RFRA claim, since the Court only allowed claims for declaratory
relief to proceed and such relief can be sought under the RFRA. See 42 U.S.C.
§ 2000bb-1(c) (“A person whose religious exercise has been burdened in
violation of this section may . . . obtain appropriate relief against a
government.”) (emphasis added); Davila v. Gladden, 777 F.3d 1198, 1207 (11th
Cir. 2015) (recognizing that “it is uncontroversial that the ‘appropriate relief’
language [from 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1(c)] authorizes injunctive relief”). Doing so,
the Court concludes that the RFRA claim is moot because the Plaintiff is no
longer in the BOP’s custody.
The Court initially clarifies that the Plaintiff’s RFRA claim was asserted
against the BOP, as indicated by the face of the Final Amended Complaint,
despite suggestions in Judge White’s report that perhaps the Plaintiff intended
to bring an RFRA claim against the individual defendants. (See, e.g., Report,
ECF No. 62 at 39, 46, 54–55.) Any suggestion by Judge White that the Plaintiff
alleged an RFRA claim against the individual defendants is erroneous.
Although the Defendants raised hypothetical arguments about an RFRA claim
against the individual defendants, the Court rejects any attempts by the
Defendants to redraft the Plaintiff’s claim and seek dismissal on that basis.
Turning to the Plaintiff’s RFRA claim against the BOP, the Court holds
that the claim is now moot. Generally, a plaintiff’s release from prison moots
his individual claim for declaratory and injunctive relief. See, e.g., Cotterall v.
Paul, 755 F.2d 777, 780 (11th Cir. 1985); McKinnon v. Talladega Cty., Ala., 745
F.2d 1360, 1363 (11th Cir. 1984). The Plaintiff was released from the BOP’s
custody on December 29, 2017. (Order of Directions to Clerk, ECF No. 61 at 3.)
As a result, the Plaintiff’s RFRA claim is now moot and the Court no longer has
subject matter jurisdiction. Al Najjar v. Ashcroft, 273 F.3d 1330, 1336 (11th
Cir. 2001) (“If events that occur subsequent to the filing of a lawsuit . . . deprive
the court of the ability to give the plaintiff . . . meaningful relief, then the case
is moot and must be dismissed. Indeed, dismissal is required because
mootness is jurisdictional.”) (internal citations omitted); Westmoreland v.
National Transportation Safety Board, 833 F.2d 1461, 1462 (11th Cir. 1987)
(“Federal courts do not have jurisdiction under the Article III ‘Case or
Controversy’ provision of the United States Constitution to decide questions
rendered moot by reason of intervening events.”). Any opinion by the Court as
to the viability or merits of the Plaintiff’s RFRA claim would therefore be a
prohibited advisory opinion, see Al Najjar, 273 F.3d at 1338, so the Court does
not adopt Judge White’s discussion of the same. (Report, ECF No. 62 at 52–55.)
The Plaintiff argues in his sur-reply that his case should not be
dismissed despite his release from custody because the issues he raised
against the BOP are “systemic” and he intends to pursue his lawsuit as a class
action “once the Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss is denied.” (Plaintiff’s Sur-reply,
ECF No. 55 at 2–3.) He acknowledges that his motion for class certification was
previously denied, but argues that class certification can be considered by the
Court once he obtains counsel. He contends that the mootness of his own
claim should not prevent him from bringing a class claim against the BOP.
The Court disagrees with the Plaintiff and finds his arguments in support
of reviving his claim unavailing. Although the Court acknowledges that a class
action may proceed even if the named class plaintiff’s individual claim is moot
in certain circumstances, see, e.g., Sosna v. Iowa, 419 U.S. 393, 401 (1975),
those circumstances are not present here. The First Amended Complaint
presents no class claim on its face, the Court has not certified a class, and
there is no motion for class certification pending before the Court. As a result,
the mootness of the Plaintiff’s individual claim precludes this case from
proceeding. See id. at 398 (explaining that if the appellant had sued on her
behalf instead of on behalf of a class, then her case would have been moot and
dismissal would have been required).
In fact, Judge White denied the Plaintiff’s motion for class certification.
(Order on Motion for Class Certification, ECF No. 37.) Although Judge White’s
order should have been issued as a report and recommendation, see 28 U.S.C.
636(b), the Plaintiff did not seek relief from the Court or appeal the matter on
this or any other basis. Nor did the Plaintiff obtain counsel since Judge White
issued his opinion in May of 2017. Notwithstanding these facts, Judge White’s
rationale for denying the Plaintiff’s motion for class certification was correct—
the law in our circuit is that pro se litigants cannot serve as class
representatives. See, e.g., Bass v. Benton, 408 F. App’x 298, 299 (11th Cir.
2011); Wallace v. Smith, 145 F. App’x 300, 302 (11th Cir. 2005). The Plaintiff
cannot now claim that he will obtain counsel in the hopes of reviving his
motion for class certification.
C. Recommendations as to the Plaintiff’s Previously Dismissed
As previously noted, Judge White entertains arguments related to claims
that the Court has already dismissed. For example, Judge White discusses
whether the Court has personal jurisdiction over the individual defendants
from Ft-Dix (Report, ECF No. 62 at 12–21), whether the Plaintiff has exhausted
his remedies to bring claims against the individual defendants (id. at 21–40),
the viability of the Plaintiff’s claim for damages (id. at 42–44), the Plaintiff’s
Bivens claim (id. at 44–46), and whether the individual defendants have
qualified immunity (id. at 46–52). The Court declines to adopt Judge White’s
discussion of claims that are no longer in dispute.
For these reasons, it is ordered and adjudged that Judge White’s Report
and Recommendation (ECF No. 62) is adopted in part. The Plaintiff’s Final
Amended Complaint is dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
Done and ordered, in chambers, on March 9, 2018.
Robert N. Scola, Jr.
United States District Judge
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