ROBBINS v. ROBERTSON et al
ORDER granting in part and denying in part 78 Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. Summary judgment is granted to Defendants on the RLUIPA claim but is denied on the Eighth Amendment claim on which genuine issues of material fact remain. This case remains set for the Court's August 2022 trial term on Plaintiff's Eighth Amendment and First Amendment claims. Ordered by US DISTRICT JUDGE W LOUIS SANDS on 1/6/2022. (rlw)
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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF GEORGIA
WILLIAM ROBERTSON, et al.,
CASE NO.: 7:15-CV-00124 (WLS)
Before the Court is a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment filed by Defendants
William Robertson and Marty Allen on August 16, 2021. (Doc. 78.) Plaintiff Marquise Robbins
timely responded, and Defendants timely replied. (Docs. 83 & 90.) Accordingly, the motion
for summary judgment is ripe for review. See M.D. Ga. L.R. 7.3.1(a).
Plaintiff Marquise Robbins, a practicing Muslim, brought this action pro se as a prisoner
on July 2, 2015, alleging that Defendants’ failure to provide him properly prepared and
nutritionally adequate vegan meals violated his rights under the Eighth Amendment, the First
Amendment, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”).
(Doc. 1.) In July 2016, Judge Langstaff issued a Report and Recommendation which, among
other things, recommended granting the Defendants’ motions to dismiss (Docs. 13 & 17)
based on “Plaintiff’s failure to set forth sufficient allegations of constitutional or federal law
violations.” (Doc. 26 at 9.) Plaintiff objected, and this Court overruled Plaintiff’s Objection
and adopted Judge Langstaff’s Recommendation and dismissed this case. (Doc. 29.)
Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a Notice of Appeal (Doc. 31), and the Eleventh Circuit Court
of Appeals found that the appeal was not frivolous and allowed it to proceed. (Doc. 38.) On
July 23, 2019, the Circuit Court issued an unpublished opinion affirming the denial of
Plaintiff’s second motion to amend, affirming the dismissal of Plaintiff’s RLUIPA damages
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claim, instructing this Court to dismiss Plaintiff’s request for an injunction as moot, and
reversing and remanding the dismissal of Plaintiff’s First Amendment and Eighth Amendment
claims. (Doc. 41.)
While the case was on appeal, Plaintiff obtained legal counsel who continue to
represent him in this action.1 After the Circuit Court issued its mandate, this Court entered a
Discovery Order and Protective Order and allowed Plaintiff to file a Third Amended
Complaint seeking damages under RLUIPA based on a Supreme Court decision issued on
December 10, 2020 that allowed a plaintiff to pursue damages against federal officers under
the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (the “RFRA”), Tanzin v. Tanvir, 141 S. Ct. 486 (2020).
(Docs. 62, 64, 73.)
Thereafter, the Defendants, William Robertson and Warden Marty Allen, filed the
pending Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, seeking summary judgment on Plaintiff’s
Eighth Amendment and RLUIPA damages claim, which has been fully briefed by the Parties.
(Docs. 78, 83, 90.) The Court also granted Plaintiff’s unopposed motion for oral argument on
the motion for partial summary judgment (Doc. 87), and a hearing was held on December 21,
2021. (See Doc. 95.)
SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56
“Summary judgment is appropriate if the pleadings, depositions, answers to
interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show there is no
genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a
matter of law.” Chow v. Chak Yam Chau, 555 F. App’x 842, 846 (11th Cir. 2014) (citing Maddox
v. Stephens, 727 F.3d 1109, 1118 (11th Cir. 2013)). “ ‘A genuine issue of material fact does not
exist unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a reasonable jury to
return a verdict in its favor.’ ” Grimes v. Miami Dade Cnty., 552 F. App’x 902, 904 (11th Cir.
2014) (quoting Chapman v. AI Transp., 229 F.3d 1012, 1023 (11th Cir. 2000)). “An issue of fact
is ‘material’ if it is a legal element of the claim under the applicable substantive law which
Plaintiff has also represented that he is no longer incarcerated. (Doc. 83 at 31.)
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might affect the outcome of the case.” Allen v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 121 F.3d 642, 646 (11th Cir.
1997) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). “It is ‘genuine’ if the
record taken as a whole could lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party.”
Tipton v. Bergrohr GMBH-Siegen, 965 F.2d 994, 998 (11th Cir. 1992) (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus.
Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)).
The movant bears the initial burden of showing, by citing to the record, that there is
no genuine issue of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Barreto v.
Davie Marketplace, LLC, 331 F. App’x 672, 673 (11th Cir. 2009). The movant can meet that
burden by presenting evidence showing there is no dispute of material fact, or by
demonstrating that the nonmoving party has failed to present evidence in support of some
element of its case on which it bears the ultimate burden of proof. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 32224. Once the movant has met its burden, the nonmoving party is required “to go beyond the
pleadings” and identify “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at
324. To avoid summary judgment, the nonmoving party must “do more than simply show
that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.’ ” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586
(citations omitted). Instead, the non-movant must point to record evidence that would be
admissible at trial. See Jones v. UPS Ground Freight, 683 F.3d 1283, 1294 (11th Cir. 2012) (quoting
Macuba v. Deboer, 193 F.3d 1316, 1322 (11th Cir. 1999)) (noting that hearsay may be considered
on a motion for summary judgment only if it “could be reduced to admissible evidence at trial
or reduced to admissible form.”). Such evidence may include affidavits or declarations that are
based on personal knowledge of the affiant or declarant. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(4).
On a motion for summary judgment, the Court must view all evidence and factual
inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and determine
whether that evidence could reasonably sustain a jury verdict. See Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 58788; Allen, 121 F.3d at 646. However, the Court must grant summary judgment if there is no
genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.
R. Civ. P. 56(c).
Local Rule 56
Local Rule 56 requires the following:
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The respondent to a motion for summary judgment shall attach to the response
a separate and concise statement of material facts, numbered separately, to
which the respondent contends there exists a genuine issue to be tried.
Response shall be made to each of the movant’s numbered material facts. All
material facts contained in the moving party’s statement which are not
specifically controverted by the respondent in respondent’s statement shall be
deemed to have been admitted, unless otherwise inappropriate.
M.D. Ga. L.R. 56. Here, Defendants properly filed a summary judgment motion with
a statement of undisputed material facts, as required by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure
and the Local Rules of this Court. (See Docs. 78 & 78-1.) Plaintiff then filed a response to
Defendants’ statement of material facts and his own counterstatement of material facts as to
which a genuine factual issue exists. (Docs. 83-1 & 83-2.) Defendants responded to Plaintiff’s
counterstatement of material facts. (Doc. 91.) Thus, both Parties have complied with the local
rule’s requirement on statements of fact. Having established the applicable standards, the
Court will proceed to the facts.
RELEVANT FACTUAL BACKGROUND
The following facts are derived from the Complaints (Docs. 1, 49, 74); Defendants’
Answers thereto (Docs. 52, 75); Defendants’ Statement of Undisputed Material Facts (Doc.
78-1); Plaintiffs’ response and statement thereto (Docs. 83-1 & 83-2); Defendants’ response
to Plaintiff’s counterstatement of material facts (Doc. 91); and the record in this case. Where
relevant, the factual summary also contains undisputed and disputed facts derived from the
pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits, all of which are
construed in a light most favorable to Plaintiff as the nonmoving party. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56;
Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587-88.
Plaintiff was an inmate at Valdosta State Prison (“VSP”) from December 23, 2014 until
September 2016. (Doc. 74 ¶ 8.) During this time, Defendant Robertson was a Food Services
Director for VSP and for most of this time Defendant Allen was the Warden of VSP, and
both Defendants were employed by the State of Georgia and the Georgia Department of
Corrections (“GDOC”). Id. ¶¶ 9-10; Doc. 83-1 ¶¶ 2-3.
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Plaintiff was a practicing Muslim before and during his time at VSP. (Doc. 91 ¶ 1.) As
a Muslim, Plaintiff follows a “halal diet” which requires abstention from eating any animal
products or by-products without knowledge of how the animal was slaughtered or any foods
that have come in contact with “animal products or by-products or any unclean or impure
substances,” known as “haram.” (Doc. 74 ¶ 14.) Through its “Alternative Entrée Program”
(“AEP”), GDOC offers a vegan diet which, if properly prepared and served, should comply
with the Islamic dietary laws. Id. ¶ 15. Plaintiff opted into the AEP immediately upon arriving
at VSP, which was the only way to maintain a diet consistent with his religious beliefs. Id. ¶
18. “Georgia Correctional Industries (GCI), a state agency, contracts with GDC to provide
the food, supplies, menus, recipes, and instructions needed to prepare and serve meals at all
[GDOC] facilities, including vegan and restricted vegan meals for inmates on the AEP.” (Doc.
83-1 ¶ 5.)
Plaintiff alleges that in contradiction with GDOC’s policies, the vegan meals he
received “were underportioned, often not actually vegan, nutritionally inadequate, unsanitary,
and contaminated with non-vegan foods, chemicals, and even dirt and insects.” (Doc. 74 ¶
19.) He alleges that the meals caused him “to lose weight and experience other adverse health
effects, including headaches, dizziness, constant fatigue, and mental anguish.” Id.
Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that his meals were served on poorly cleaned trays used for
non-vegan meals, which contaminated his vegan meals. (Doc. 74 ¶ 24); (see also Doc. 83-2 ¶ 6)
(Plaintiff testifying that there were remnants of chicken and rice in some of the corners of the
compartments on the tray). He alleges that use of the non-vegan food trays also caused him
not to receive full portions of his vegan food based on the size of the compartments on the
non-vegan food tray. (Doc. 74 ¶ 24.) At his deposition, Plaintiff testified that he was given less
than 2,000 calories a day and that one point he was only fed “excessive amount[s] of collard
greens and nothing else.” (Doc. 83-2 ¶ 8.) He also alleges that most of the time, the vegan
meals were “adjacent to the non-vegan meals ‘unprotected from immediate contact,’”
contaminating his vegan food with non-vegan food and that while the trays were supposed to
be labeled with names and cell numbers, they were not labeled, and he was frequently handed
unmarked trays containing non-vegan meals. (Doc. 74 ¶ 24.) Furthermore, Plaintiff believes
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that some of the vegan meals contained animal byproducts like “beef base” or gelatin made
from pork ingredients. (Doc. 83-2 ¶ 9-10.) Each time he was given non-vegan food, Plaintiff
was forced to either eat the food he was given or skip the meal—“the only food available.”
(Doc. 74 ¶ 25.) While Plaintiff usually skipped the meal, when he was unable to withstand the
hunger, he would eat the non-vegan food and violate his religious beliefs. Id. ¶ 26.
Plaintiff also alleges that the meal service was unsanitary and that “(1) the food slots
from which he received his food were rusted, contaminating his meals with a rusty residue; (2)
the beverage pitchers contained cleaning chemicals; (3) the trays were not sufficiently cleaned;
and (4) the ice cooler contained bugs, dirt, and food remnants.” (Doc. 74 ¶ 27; Doc. 83-2 ¶
24.) Specifically, Plaintiff observed staff serve drinks from the same pitcher containers that
held chemicals to clean the showers earlier in the day, and the drinks served from those
pitchers tasted like chemicals and dishwashing liquid. (Doc. 83-2 ¶¶ 24-26, 126-27.) Plaintiff
contends that the only other water sources were the “putrid” tap water in his cell and the dirty
ice cooler. Id. ¶¶ 28-29. He also testified that there were vermin, insects, bugs, and flies over
his food and that the lack of sanitation exacerbated his hunger. Id. ¶¶ 20, 31.
He alleges that he repeatedly filed grievances and complaints and informed Robertson
and Warden Allen of the issues with the vegan meals. (Doc. 74 ¶ 21.) In February 2015,
Plaintiff submitted a grievance complaining about the inadequate quality of the vegan meals,
their impact on his religion, and that he was “suffering from constant headaches, hunger pains,
dizziness, constant fatigue, and lack of concentration as a result of the nutritionally and
quantitatively inadequate vegan meals.” See Doc. 83-9 at 10. The matter was investigated within
VSP, addressed by Robertson, and denied by Warden Allen, followed by an appeal by Plaintiff
which was also denied. (Doc. 83-9.) Plaintiff testified that he wrote letters to Robertson weekly
and personally spoke to Warden Allen about the issues, even showing him his tray, and that
other Muslim inmates also complained about the meals. (Doc. 83-2 ¶¶ 62-81.) But aside from
a few weeks during which things improved shortly after he filed his grievance, the issues went
Defendants dispute their subjective awareness of most of the problems alleged by
Plaintiff in this case and the alleged extent of those problems. See Doc. 91. Indeed, the Parties
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agree that “GCI employs, and at all times relevant employed, a registered dietician who creates
uniform menus, referred to as ‘Master Menus,’ for use at all [GDOC] facilities. This means
that all of [GDOC’s] facilities are to be serving the same meals for breakfasts, lunches, dinners
and snacks.” (Doc. 83-4 ¶ 6.) While Robertson states that the vegan menus are free from
animal products, Plaintiff points out that many of the menu items contain beef base or chicken
base. (Doc. 83-1 ¶ 8.) Robertson states that in an average 28-day cycle, the vegan meals provide
2,700 calories daily. Id. ¶ 10. Robertson states that food staff were regularly trained about vegan
meal preparation and service, and advisors regularly visited GDOC facilities regarding
maintaining proper inventories and properly preparing and serving food. Id. ¶¶ 12-13. Further,
while Defendants agree that there were roaches in the VSP kitchen sometimes, they contend
that the kitchen was sprayed monthly and there is no evidence “that any roach had contact
with Plaintiff’s food.” (Doc. 91 ¶ 30.) Robertson also states that color-coded trays were used
to readily distinguish the vegan and non-vegan food trays, that vegan meals were prepared in
a separate kitchen with separate utensils, and that inmates assigned to work in the vegan
kitchen did not also work in the non-vegan kitchen. (Doc. 83-1 ¶¶ 16-21.) The Food Service
Director and Assistant Director also regularly held classes for inmate workers to train them
on proper food preparation, sanitation, and separating and avoiding cross-contamination of
vegan food items and utensils. Id. ¶ 24.
Furthermore, Plaintiff was housed in protective custody in a lockdown unit the entire
time he was at VSP. (Doc. 83-1 ¶ 1.) Plaintiff rarely left his cell and never went to the cafeteria
or the kitchen. (Doc. 83-4 at 35-39.) His meals were delivered to his cell not by Robertson or
his staff, but by VSP corrections officers. (Doc. 83-1 ¶ 26; Doc. 83-4 at 39-40.) At mealtimes,
officers would open the flap on his door, and Plaintiff could see the food on the food carts.
(Doc. 83-4 at 97-98.) Initially, Plaintiff observed that the vegan and non-vegan trays were
unwrapped and adjacent on the same “unsanitized” cart, but after Plaintiff filed a grievance,
he observed that they put the vegan trays on the bottom shelf “completely separate from the
trays that’s [sic] on that top shelf.” Id. Plaintiff lived on the top range in his unit, and there was
only one food cart for his range. Id. at 98. Plaintiff was also able to see inside the ice cooler on
the cart “a few times,” and the ice always had insects, dirt, or food crumbs. Id. at 129-31.
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Notwithstanding Plaintiff’s observations through the door flap, Robertson states that
vegan meals were delivered to the lockdown buildings on a separate cart from regular meals.
(Doc. 83-1 ¶ 28.) Defendants contend that upon arrival at the lockdown buildings, the Food
Service Supervisor checked and recorded the temperature of the food to ensure it was proper.
Id. ¶ 29. Defendants assert that the VSP corrections officers were given a list of the names and
cell numbers of the inmates who were to receive vegan or other specially prepared meals. Id.
¶ 31. Defendants assert that “[n]either Mr. Robertson nor members of his kitchen staff were
able to observe the handling and distribution of meal trays and beverages to inmates in the
lockdown buildings, which was carried out by corrections officers.” (Doc. 83-1 ¶ 66.) Further,
Nurse Seleska who regularly saw and physically examined Plaintiff, never found him to be
undernourished or declining in health, and she believes his BMI was always normal based on
his height and that his weight fluctuations were not medically significant. (Doc. 78-6 ¶¶ 2728.) In fact, a large portion of Plaintiff’s medical visits at VSP were not related to weight loss,
dizziness, or malnutrition but were because Plaintiff had a fungal rash or other dermatological
condition. See, e.g., Doc. 78-6 ¶¶ 6, 17, 18, 22, 23, 24, 25.
But Plaintiff asserts that he experienced “a multitude of symptoms, including: 1)
throbbing headaches, 2) constant fatigue from lack of energy, 3) abdominal pains produced
from constant hunger pangs, 4) dizziness in the late night hours that prevented sleep, 5) lack
of concentration that prevented his ability to focus on simple daily routines, and 6) frequent
weakness in his extremities.” (Doc. 83-2 ¶ 42.) Plaintiff’s blood test indicated elevated protein
levels, and Nurse Seleska prescribed Plaintiff multivitamins and a “3x7” meal plan, which
provided Plaintiff additional (albeit not initially vegan) meals. Id. ¶¶ 46-49. Repeatedly,
Plaintiff was “forced” to choose “between eating food that violated his religious beliefs, and
not eating anything at all.” Id. ¶ 60.
As such, Plaintiff brings suit against Defendants in their individual and official
capacities pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution for
violation of the right to the free exercise of religion, the Eighth Amendment of the U.S.
Constitution for deprivation of a basic human need, and the RLUIPA for substantially
burdening his religious exercise, and he seeks compensatory and punitive damages and
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demands a jury trial on all triable issues. (Docs. 1, 49, 74 at 12.)2 Defendants seek partial
summary judgment on the Eighth Amendment and RLUIPA claims, but not on the First
Amendment claim. (Doc. 78.)
A. Eighth Amendment Claim
1. Legal Standard
The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment by the government,
which can give rise to legal claims on three grounds: “conditions of confinement, the excessive
use of force, and the deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s serious medical needs.” Thomas v.
Bryant, 614 F.3d 1288, 1303-04 (11th Cir. 2010) “Each of these claims requires a two-prong
showing: an objective showing of a deprivation or injury that is ‘sufficiently serious’ to
constitute a denial of the ‘minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities’ and a subjective
showing that the official had a ‘sufficiently culpable state of mind.’” Id. (quoting Farmer v.
Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994)). “[T]o make out a claim for an unconstitutional condition
of confinement, ‘extreme deprivations’ are required,” and “the relevant state of mind for
purposes of liability is deliberate indifference.” Id. at 1304.
2. Objective Seriousness of the Conditions of Confinement
“Conditions are objectively serious or extreme if they amount to a deprivation of the
‘minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities,’  or ‘the basic human needs,’ including
‘reasonably adequate food, clothing, shelter, and sanitation.’” Quintanilla v. Bryson, 730 F. App'x
738, 746 (11th Cir. 2018) (citations omitted). The Eleventh Circuit has “long recognized a well
established Eighth Amendment right not to be confined . . . in conditions lacking basic
sanitation.” Id. (citing Brooks v. Warden, 800 F.3d 1295, 1303 (11th Cir. 2015)). Furthermore,
“‘a condition which might not ordinarily violate the Eighth Amendment may nonetheless do
In his initial Complaint, Plaintiff also sought “a preliminary and permanent injunction for Defendants to
ensure that religious meals are nutritionally adequate on a daily basis and all procedures are consistently carried
out.” (Doc. 1 at 5.) But because Plaintiff was transferred to Hays State Prison in September 2016 and is only
suing two officials at Valdosta State Prison, the Eleventh Circuit has deemed his request for injunctive relief
moot. (Doc. 41 at 11-12.)
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so if it persists over an extended period of time.’” Chandler v. Crosby, 379 F.3d 1278, 1295 (11th
Cir. 2004) (citation omitted) (explaining that court should consider both severity and duration).
Here, Plaintiff asserts that with the exception of a few weeks, he was regularly provided
food and drink that were unsanitary, contained chemicals, insects, and dirt, were nutritionally
inadequate, and often contaminated with non-vegan items in violation of his religious beliefs.
(Doc. 83-2 ¶¶ 6, 20, 29.) Plaintiff contends that the food was so inadequate and unsanitary,
that there was a time when he lost eleven pounds in two weeks, and he often felt physically ill,
hungry, and unable to concentrate. Id.¶ 59, 63, 67. Plaintiff testified about his hunger from
watered-down meals and that there were times when he ate the non-vegan or contaminated
food because otherwise, he would have nothing to eat that day. (See Doc. 83-4 at 42, 62)
(Robbins testifying that “I’m going through all these different symptoms, because I’m hungry.
I ain’t eating enough.”); id. at 74 (“[I]f you was [sic] to add up all that food together, you will
know this is generally just one meal. After I get done with eating this, it ain’t gonna be too
long I'll be hungry again.”); id. at 118-120 (“If it came down to the fact that I wasn’t going to
eat that day….[T]hen most likely I probably ate that tray because I have to survive.”); id. at
121 (Robbins testifying that the bread was often “inedible” and that he could not consume it
because “[i]t was entirely too hard.”). Defendants dispute Plaintiff’s allegations about the
quality of the food and the food’s effects on his health, but their disputes do not warrant
summary judgment on this issue.
At the summary judgment stage, the Court cannot “weigh the evidence and reach
factual inferences contrary to [the plaintiff’s] competent evidence,” but must draw all
“reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party.” Tolan v. Cotton, 572 U.S. 650, 660
(2014). It would be inappropriate for the Court to credit the Defendants’ statements over
Plaintiff’s. Sears v. Warden Okeechobee Corr. Inst., 762 F. App'x 910, 916 (11th Cir. 2019) (finding
that the district court erred in relying on medical records and the nurse’s sworn statement that
there were no visible injuries to grant summary judgment to defendants); see also Reid v. Sec'y,
Fla. Dep't of Corr., 486 F. App'x 848, 852 (11th Cir. 2012) (“While it is true that [Plaintiff’s]
medical records do not support the version of the facts he presents in his affidavit, all this
means is that there is conflict in the evidence, which we must resolve at the summary judgment
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stage in [Plaintiff’s] favor.”). A Plaintiff need not offer more than his own plausible affidavit
and testimony to create a dispute of fact at this stage. Sears v. Warden Okeechobee Corr. Inst., 762
F. App'x 910, 917 (“[T]he self-serving nature of [Plaintiff’s] sworn statements do not preclude
those statements from creating a genuine dispute of material fact, and there is no
uncontroverted objective evidence rendering his account implausible.”).
While the Eighth Amendment does not necessarily require that prison officials
“indulge inmates’ dietary preferences[,]” even those based on religion, it does require that
prisoners receive “‘[a] well-balanced meal, containing sufficient nutritional value to preserve
health.’”3 (Doc. 41 at 21) (quoting Hamm v. DeKalb Cty., 774 F.2d 1567, 1572 (11th Cir. 1985)).
A reasonable factfinder taking Plaintiff’s assertions as true could conclude that regardless of
whether the meals provided to Plaintiff were vegan, they often did not constitute nutritionally
and sanitarily adequate food. Cf. Freeman v. Sample, 814 F. App'x 455, 460 (11th Cir. 2020)
(affirming this Court’s grant of summary judgment to defendant because, inter alia, plaintiff
“does not allege that the defendants failed to provide edible meals” but only that “he refused
to eat some of the food provided because it was not prepared in accordance with his religious
beliefs”); see also Turner v. Warden, GDCP, 650 F. App'x 695, 702 (11th Cir. 2016) (affirming
summary judgment to defendants where plaintiff “was not regularly deprived of adequate
nutrition and points to no evidence that his health was jeopardized due to [a] single
deprivation”). While it is true that Plaintiff chose to forgo eating certain food or meals to
adhere to his religion, Plaintiff also testified to and alleged the nutritionally deficient nature of
the vegan meals and the unsanitary nature of the water and meals on a regular basis.4 He has
consistently alleged that the bread was often so hard that it was inedible, that the peanut butter
was barely existent, that he could not drink the beverages because they were “filthy” and tasted
like chemicals, and that the vegetables were so watered down and lacking in calories that he
This Court does not assume that the Eighth Amendment establishes a right to vegan meals for religious
reasons because such an assumption is not necessary in light of Plaintiff’s numerous complaints and allegations
regarding the inadequate nutritional and sanitary quality of the food overall.
4 While the record does not establish that Defendant Robertson would be responsible for some of the problems
with the meals, such as the rust on Plaintiff’s cell door flap or the temperature of the food, a reasonable
factfinder could conclude that Robertson was responsible for other problems such as the food’s low nutritional
value and edibility.
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was often hungry, feeling unwell, and weak. See, e.g., Doc. 83-4 at 57-58, 61-62, 73-74, 121,
126-28; Doc. 83-15 ¶¶ 6-9. Thus, a jury could conclude that the overall meal service violated
the Eighth Amendment because the meals were not nutritionally adequate to preserve
Plaintiff’s health. Furthermore, the Eleventh Circuit has already concluded that Plaintiff’s
assertion that the meals were inadequate is bolstered by the allegations and evidence that
Plaintiff’s health had been so negatively impacted that the prison medical staff prescribed him
extra meals. (See Doc. 41 at 17; Doc. 78-6 ¶ 10.) Thus, Plaintiff has alleged facts that, taken
together, create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether he was subjected to an extreme
deprivation in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
3. Deliberate Indifference
“Conditions that fall below minimal constitutional standards of decency do not alone
amount to a violation of the Eighth Amendment” unless “the defendants were deliberately
indifferent to the risks the conditions posed” to the plaintiff’s health or safety. Quintanilla v.
Bryson, 730 F. App'x 738, 747 (11th Cir. 2018). “Deliberate indifference is established by
showing: ‘(1) subjective knowledge of a risk of serious harm; (2) disregard of that risk; (3) by
conduct that is more than mere negligence.’” Saunders v. Sheriff of Brevard Cty., 735 F. App'x 559,
572 (11th Cir. 2018) (quoting McElligott v. Foley, 182 F.3d 1248, 1255 (11th Cir. 1999)). Thus,
“[a] prison official’s deliberate indifference to a known, substantial risk of serious harm to an
inmate violates the Eighth Amendment.’” Id. (quoting Marsh v. Butler Cty., 268 F.3d 1014, 1028
(11th Cir. 2001) (en banc), abrogated on other grounds by Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S.
544, 561-63 (2007)). Furthermore, the Eleventh Circuit has held that “a prisoner’s mere
discomfort, without more, does not offend the Eighth Amendment[,]” but a plaintiff must
show “that the conditions of his confinement created an unreasonable risk of harm to his
health or safety.” Turner, 650 F. App'x at 701 (quoting Chandler v. Crosby, 379 F.3d 1278, 1295
(11th Cir. 2004)).
Plaintiff alleges that he repeatedly filed grievances and complaints and informed
Robertson and Warden Allen of the issues with the meals. (Doc. 74 ¶ 21.) In February 2015,
Plaintiff submitted a grievance complaining about the inadequate quality of the vegan meals,
their impact on his religion, and that he was “suffering from constant headaches, hunger pains,
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dizziness, fatigue, and lack of concentration” as a result of the vegan meals. See Doc. 83-9 at
10. Plaintiff testified that he wrote letters to Robertson “at least once a week, sometimes it
might have been twice a week in order to get his attention,” and that the mail lady confirmed
she had given Plaintiff’s letters to Robertson. (Doc. 83-4 at 151-52.) Plaintiff also testified that
he personally spoke to Warden Allen about the meals, stating that he “basically begged the
man numerous times, please do something about these trays[,]” and he even showed Allen his
tray on one occasion, but Allen just “brushed [him] off.” (Doc. 83-4 at 148-149; Doc. 83-2 ¶¶
62-81.) While it is not clear what exactly Plaintiff told Robertson and Allen at VSP, Plaintiff
has testified that the meals he was served caused him numerous symptoms “probably [his]
entire time there,” including stomach pain, lack of concentration, weak knees, headaches, back
pain, and muscle atrophy, which resulted in him making multiple sick calls, as he was directed
to do by the Warden and GDOC. (Doc. 83-4 at 159-160.) Furthermore, three letters that
Robbins wrote to Robertson in February and March 2015 have been filed on the record, in
which Robbins writes that the food “is barely existent” and that he is “hungry everyday,”
“weak from lack of sufficient food” and “physically deteriorating in weight.” (Doc. 83-17 at
2; see also Docs. 83-16 and 83-18.)
Importantly, Robertson does not contend that he did not receive these letters, only that
he does not recall receiving the letters. (Doc. 78-4 ¶¶ 25-27.) But Robertson also states that he
has “no specific recollection” of responding to Robbins’ grievance, although his records show
that he investigated it and determined that nothing needed to be corrected. (Doc. 78-4 ¶¶ 2627; Doc. 78-4 at 29-30.) Robertson now states in his declaration that he believed that the
regular and vegan meals were sufficient to maintain inmate health, and he asserts that he was
not aware “of any medical determination” that Plaintiff “faced a risk of harm to his health as
a result of the meals.” (Doc. 78-4 ¶¶ 28-29.) Similarly, Warden Allen states that he does not
specifically recall Plaintiff speaking with him, but that Allen would have instructed any inmate
who complained of illness to put in a sick call request and that Allen was never aware “of any
medical determination” that Plaintiff “faced a risk of harm to his health as a result of the
meals.” (Doc. 78-3 ¶¶ 13, 15, 18.)
Case 7:15-cv-00124-WLS Document 99 Filed 01/06/22 Page 14 of 20
Notwithstanding Defendants’ statements to the contrary, a reasonable factfinder
viewing these facts in a light most favorable to Plaintiff could conclude that Defendants were
aware of a serious risk to Plaintiff’s health as a result of the meals as they were made aware
numerous times of Plaintiff’s complaints about the low caloric value of the food and its
significant impact on his health. Indeed, Plaintiff testified that in April 2015 the meals
improved for a few weeks: the prison starting using trays with bigger food compartments and
the vegan trays were wrapped and placed on the bottom shelf of the cart, but the meals soon
returned to the initial poor state. (Doc. 83-4 at 58:2-59:9, 101-103.) The Eleventh Circuit has
already found that Plaintiff’s allegations that the meals temporarily improved in response to
his grievance “suggest[s] that Defendants knew about his complaints and considered them
significant enough to warrant responsive action” and that although Defendants “had been
placed on notice of the nutritional deficits, they subsequently acted with deliberate indifference
to Plaintiff’s nutritional needs when they once again began serving deficient meals.” (Doc. 41
at 24) (citing See Goebert v. Lee Cty., 510 F.3d 1312, 1327 (11th Cir. 2007) (noting that the
defendant “was obviously aware of the contents of [the inmate’s] complaint because he
responded to it”)). Defendants have not cited, and the Court is unaware of, any case requiring
that the defendants receive a “medical determination” about the serious risk of harm to a
plaintiff’s health. And this is not a case where the sole assertion is that Plaintiff refused to eat
the food and thereby caused himself to be hungry or where the food was only occasionally
nutritionally deficient. Cf. Freeman, 814 F. App'x at 460; Turner, GDCP, 650 F. App'x at 702.
Plaintiff frequently complained to Robertson and Warden Allen about the food, including its
nutritional deficiencies, after which the serving trays temporarily contained larger food
compartments, and thereafter allegedly returned to their previous inadequate state. Plaintiff
also alleged that the prison staff was known to retaliate against prisoners who filed lawsuits –
this lawsuit having been filed in the summer of 2015. (Doc. 83-15 ¶ 71; Doc. 83-4 at 173-74.)
In sum, the record taken as a whole does not allow the Court to enter judgment as a
matter of law in favor of Defendants because genuine issues of material fact exist on the
subjective components of Plaintiff’s Eighth Amendment claim.
Case 7:15-cv-00124-WLS Document 99 Filed 01/06/22 Page 15 of 20
4. Qualified Immunity
“The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials ‘from liability for
civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or
constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.’” Pearson v. Callahan,
555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). “Qualified
immunity balances two important interests— the need to hold public officials accountable
when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment,
distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” Id. Further, “[q]ualified
immunity gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken
judgments, and protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the
law.” Messerschmidt v. Millender, 565 U.S. 535, 546 (2012) (citation and internal quotation marks
Because there is no dispute that Defendants were acting within their discretionary
authority here (Doc. 83 at 25 n.11), “the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that qualified
immunity is not appropriate.” Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188, 1194 (11th Cir. 2002). “If a
constitutional right would have been violated under the plaintiff’s version of the facts, the court
must then determine ‘whether the right was clearly established.’” Id. (citation omitted)
(emphasis in original). For the reasons explained above, a reasonable juror could conclude that
Plaintiff’s Eighth Amendment rights had been violated based on Defendants’ failure to
provide him a nutritionally sufficient diet.
“[F]or a federal right to be clearly established, the applicable law ‘must be sufficiently
clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.’”
Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730 (2002) (citation omitted). A plaintiff can show that the law is clearly
established by showing: “‘that a materially similar case has already been decided,’” that “‘a
broader, clearly established principle should control the novel facts’ of a particular situation,”
or that his case “fits within the exception of conduct which so obviously violates the
constitution that prior case law is unnecessary.” Corbitt v. Vickers, 929 F.3d 1304, 1312 (11th
Cir. 2019)). “[G]overnment officials will be shielded by qualified immunity ‘as long as their
actions could reasonably have been thought consistent with the rights they are alleged to have
Case 7:15-cv-00124-WLS Document 99 Filed 01/06/22 Page 16 of 20
violated.’” Freeman, 814 F. App'x at 461 (citation omitted). The “‘salient question’ . . . is whether
the state of the law gave the defendants ‘fair warning’ that their alleged conduct was
unconstitutional.” Vaughan v. Cox, 343 F.3d 1323, 1332 (11th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted).
Here, Defendants had been fairly warned.
Defendants argue that qualified immunity applies because “it was not clearly
established at the time that a prison official can be held liable for deliberate indifference to a
risk of harm from an inmate’s meals when the official was not personally aware that the meals
were so inadequate as to present a danger to the health of the inmate” and where “the medical
evidence shows that the inmate did not suffer any significant risk to, or decline in, his health
as a result of the meals.”5 Doc. 78-2 at 21. But that is not the standard, and a reasonable jury
could conclude that Plaintiff suffered significant risks to his health from the diet at VSP.
Moreover, at the time Plaintiff was at VSP, it was clearly established that prison officials must
provide prisoners with “basic necessities” like “food,” specifically “[a] well-balanced meal,
containing sufficient nutritional value to preserve health.” Hamm, 774 F.2d at 1574-75 (quoting
Smith v. Sullivan, 553 F.2d 373, 380 (5th Cir. 1977)). Further, it was well-established that the
length of the condition must also be considered because “a diet of ‘grue’ might be tolerable
for a few days and intolerably cruel for weeks or months.” Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678, 68687 (1978). Because Plaintiff’s evidence shows that he repeatedly complained to Defendants
about the inadequate nutritional quality of the food and that the food caused him to experience
various physical symptoms,6 the Court finds that either based on the aforementioned broader
established legal principles or because it is obviously unconstitutional to fail to provide an
inmate nutritionally adequate food for more than a year, qualified immunity is not appropriate.
See, e.g., Brown v. Thompson, 868 F. Supp. 326, 330 (S.D. Ga. 1994) (“Denial of food and medical
attention are, prima facie, clearly established violations of the Eighth Amendment.”)
Accordingly, summary judgment is DENIED to Defendants on the Eighth
Furthermore, qualified immunity is not appropriate merely because a plaintiff has not shown that he suffered
physical injury; nominal damages is an available form of relief. Brooks v. Powell, 800 F.3d 1295, 1308 (11th Cir.
6 This evidence is bolstered by the evidence showing rapid weight loss and a medical prescription of additional
Case 7:15-cv-00124-WLS Document 99 Filed 01/06/22 Page 17 of 20
B. RLUIPA Claim for Damages
Plaintiff amended his Complaint to seek RLUIPA damages after the U.S. Supreme
Court issued its opinion holding that “RFRA provides, as one avenue for relief, a right to seek
damages against Government employees.” Tanzin v. Tanvir, 141 S. Ct. 486, 492 (2020). RFRA
provides that a person whose exercise of religion has been unlawfully burdened may “obtain
appropriate relief against a government.” Tanzin, 141 S. Ct. at 490 (quoting 42 U. S. C.
§2000bb-1(c)). The Court explained that “[t]here is no doubt that damages claims have always
been available under §1983 for clearly established violations of the First Amendment.” Id. at
492. The Court further found that “appropriate relief” must encompass monetary damages
because damages are “the only form of relief that can remedy some RFRA violations.” Id.
Similarly, the RLUIPA provides that a person whose exercise of religion is unlawfully
burdened may “assert a violation of this Act as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding and
obtain appropriate relief against a government.” 42 USCS §§ 2000cc-1, 2000cc-2. Because of
their similar language and shared purpose “to provide very broad protection for religious
liberty,” the RFRA and RLUIPA are considered “sister” statutes. Holt v. Hobbs, 574 U.S. 352,
356 (2015). Thus, Plaintiff argues that because RLUIPA contains “identical language” to
RFRA, “Congress clearly intended that RFRA and RLUIPA may be enforced against
individual officers by private damages actions.” (Doc. 83 at 29-31) (“Congress expressly
recognized that the proposed language [for RLUIPA] ‘track[s] RFRA, creating a private cause
of action for damages, injunction, and declaratory judgment.’”) (quoting H.R. Rep. No. 106219, at 29).
But Defendants disagree. Defendants assert that Tanzin did not discuss whether its
holding applies to RLUIPA, and that unlike RFRA which was adopted under Section 5 of the
Fourteenth Amendment, RLUIPA was adopted under the Spending and Commerce Clause
supporting the Eleventh Circuit’s prior holding in Smith that civil liability should not generally
be imposed on individuals under the Spending and Commerce Clause who do not receive
federal funding. (Doc. 78-2 at 24) (citing Smith v. Allen, 502 F.3d 1255, 1273-75 (11th Cir. 2007)
(overruled and abrogated in part on other grounds). In Smith, the Eleventh Circuit Court of
Appeals held: “Congress cannot use its Spending Power to subject a non-recipient of federal
Case 7:15-cv-00124-WLS Document 99 Filed 01/06/22 Page 18 of 20
funds, including a state official acting [in] his or her individual capacity, to private liability for
monetary damages. . . . [W]e conclude that section 3 of RLUIPA—a provision that derives
from Congress’ Spending Power—cannot be construed as creating a private action against
individual defendants for monetary damages.”). 502 F.3d 1255, 1273-75. Thus, Defendants
argue that “Tanzin did not abrogate Smith, which remains controlling authority in this Circuit.”
Id. at 25.
Neither the Eleventh Circuit nor the U.S. Supreme Court have addressed this specific
issue since Tanzin, which remains unsettled. District courts in the Sixth Circuit have concluded
that because of the nature of the Spending and Commerce Clauses, their prior determination
that “RLUIPA does not authorize damages against state officials in their individual capacity
was not expressly overruled by Tanzin” and that a Plaintiff “therefore is not entitled to damages
against Defendants in their individual capacities for the alleged violations of RLUIPA.” Mease
v. Washington, No. 2:20-cv-176, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 91122, at *43-44 (W.D. Mich. May 13,
2021); see also Chaaban v. City of Detroit, No. 20-CV-12709, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169329, 2021
WL 4060986, at *5 (E.D. Mich. Sept. 7, 2021) (same). While at least one court has declined to
grant summary judgment on this issue finding that it is not clear that damages for RLUIPA
claims are unavailable in light of Tanzin. Gill v. Coyne, No. 3:18-CV-00631-CHL, 2021 U.S.
Dist. LEXIS 198152, at *52-53 (W.D. Ky. Oct. 13, 2021) (declining to grant summary
judgment on RLUIPA claim because “Defendants have failed to establish that Plaintiff’s claim
for monetary damages under RLUIPA is precluded as a matter of law.”).
Upon review, the Court is persuaded that Defendants’ position is correct. The Supreme
Court previously held that “‘[a]ppropriate relief’ is open-ended and ambiguous” and that
“States, in accepting federal funding, do not consent to waive their sovereign immunity to
private suits for money damages under RLUIPA because no statute expressly and
unequivocally includes such a waiver.” Sossamon v. Texas, 563 U.S. 277, 286, 293 (2011). Indeed,
unlike RFRA, RLUIPA specifically applies to states and local governments where the
substantial burden “is imposed in a program or activity that receives Federal financial
assistance” or “affects” foreign or interstate commerce. 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000cc-1(b); see also
Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709, 715-16 (2005) (discussing how RLUIPA was enacted under
Case 7:15-cv-00124-WLS Document 99 Filed 01/06/22 Page 19 of 20
the Spending and Commerce Clause after RFRA was invalidated as applied to the states
because it exceeded Congress’ remedial powers under the Fourteenth Amendment). Sossamon
remains good law and, applied here, continues to support the holding in Smith that state actors
cannot be sued in their individual capacities under RLUIPA because they do not receive
Further, Tanzin did not expressly overrule cases like Smith or address RLUIPA
whatsoever. And contrary to Plaintiff’s argument otherwise (Doc. 83 at 31), RLUIPA does not
“clearly express” Congress’ intent to allow damages against individual state employees, nor
is there any binding case law that allows the Court to reach such a conclusion. Rather, most
courts have continued to hold that RLUIPA damages against individuals are not allowed
following Tanzin. See, e.g., Williams v. Redman, No. 3:20-CV-196-JD-MGG, 2021 U.S. Dist.
LEXIS 90203, at *6 (N.D. Ind. May 12, 2021) (“RLUIPA does not permit a suit against an
individual for money damages because the individual does not receive federal funds.”); Tripathy
v. Schneider, No. 21-CV-6339 FPG, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 176716, at *3-4 (W.D.N.Y. Sep. 16,
2021) (“Plaintiff’s reliance on Tanzin is misplaced. The distinction drawn by Tanzin is between
claims against federal employees, against whom claims for money damages are permitted,
and state employees, against whom such claims are not permitted.”). And it appears
undisputed that Plaintiff is pursuing RLUIPA damages against Defendants in their individual
capacities and that Defendants do not receive federal funds in their individual capacities. See
Doc. 78-2 at 1, 22; Doc. 83 at 30;7 Rodriguez v. Bryson, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 152205, at *2526 (M.D. Ga. July 9, 2019) (holding that Smith “bars Plaintiff from obtaining monetary
damages under RLUIPA against officials sued in … their individual … capacit[y].”).
As such, consistent with the existing binding precedent, the Court must conclude that
damages against the Defendants in their individual capacities are not permitted by RLUIPA.
Plaintiff’s counsel did not dispute these facts at oral argument. Furthermore, Plaintiff does not argue in his
response brief that he is pursuing claims against Defendants in their official capacities, and, per Sossamon, official
capacity claims also appear barred under RLUIPA. 563 U.S. at 286, 293.
Case 7:15-cv-00124-WLS Document 99 Filed 01/06/22 Page 20 of 20
Accordingly, Defendants’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 78) is
DENIED-IN-PART and GRANTED-IN-PART. Summary judgment is granted to
Defendants on the RLUIPA claim but is denied on the Eighth Amendment claim on which
genuine issues of material fact remain. This case remains set for the Court’s August 2022 trial
term on Plaintiff’s Eighth Amendment and First Amendment claims.
SO ORDERED, this 6th day of January 2022.
/s/ W. Louis Sands
W. LOUIS SANDS, SR. JUDGE
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
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