Hunter v. Corrections Corporation of America et al
ORDER, the Court finds Defendants CCA and Phillips violated Plaintiff's rights under the Establishment Clause and awards Plaintiff $1.00 in nominal damages against those Defendants. The Court finds Defendants Day, Medlin, and Hininger did n ot violate Plaintiff's rights under the Establishment Clause, and none of Defendants violated Plaintiff's right under RLUIPA. Defendants are entitled to judgment on those claims. Plaintiff's claims for injunctive relief are moot. Signed by Magistrate Judge Brian K. Epps on 12/05/2017. (jlh)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF GEORGIA
CORRECTIONS CORPORATION OF
AMERICA; JASON MEDLIN; RON DAY; )
JAY PHILLIPS; and DAMON HININGER, )
On August 15, 2017, the Court held a bench trial concerning Plaintiff’s claims that
Defendants’ operation of a religious program at Wheeler Correctional Facility (“WCF”)
violated the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution, U.S. Const. Amend. I,
and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. §
2000cc et seq. In accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a)(1), the Court makes
its findings of fact and conclusions of law.
FINDINGS OF FACT
Plaintiff Curtis Hunter is a prisoner in custody of the Georgia Department of
Corrections. From April 15, 2014 through November 7, 2014, Plaintiff was assigned to Unit
9N of WCF, a private prison operated by Defendant Corrections Corporation of America
(“CCA”). During this time period, Defendant Damon Hininger was President of CCA,
Defendant Jason Medlin was warden of WCF, Defendant Ron Day was chaplain of WCF,
and Defendant Jay Phillips was a facilitator assigned to WCF’s Life Principles Program (“the
Program”), which was housed in Unit 9N.
Upon arrival at WCF, Plaintiff was initially assigned to a top bunk because his bottom
bunk profile expired before his transfer. While being processed through qualifications,
Plaintiff expressed his difficulty in finding a bottom bunk. A WCF employee told Plaintiff
there was a bottom bunk in Unit 9N, where the Program was housed, and he could stay there
until renewal of his bottom bunk profile. The employee told him the majority of the Program
utilized biblical and Christian materials, but also included Islam, Plaintiff’s religion.
Plaintiff decided to join the Program because (1) it offered his religion; (2) he had the
opportunity to learn about other religions; and (3) a bottom bunk was available.
The Program in full lasted nine months, and consisted of three daily sessions. The
first daily session involved memorization of Romans 1 and 2, viewing gospel videos by Bill
Gaither, and reviewing Psalms and Proverbs with open discussion. During the second daily
session, guest speakers lectured on the Bible. The third session involved Christian devotions
and testimonies. On Fridays, the first session involved Christian worship and praise songs
rather than the usual gospel videos and scripture memorization.
Books utilized in the
Program included “Commands of Christ” and “Power to True Success.” The Program also
involved anger resolution seminar videos. Program materials were biblical or Christian in
Participation in the Program was voluntary, and an inmate could leave the Program at
any time. While participation was voluntary, once enrolled in the Program, group sessions
were mandatory because it was an inmate’s OMS assignment, or job assignment, within
WCF. Failure to attend a group session would result in prison officials issuing a disciplinary
report (“DR”). None of the group sessions interfered with Plaintiff’s ability to regularly read
the Quran, pray, or attend WCF’s Jumu’ah service for Muslims on Friday afternoons.
The Program was staffed primarily by volunteers. However, Defendant Phillips was
on staff at WCF and specifically assigned to oversee Unit 9N, which housed the Program.
Defendant Phillips regularly visited the Program during Plaintiff’s time, and was responsible
for making sure every participant attended the first group session. Plaintiff testified Chaplain
Day never visited the Program, and all witnesses testified Defendant Hinninger and
Defendant Medlin never visited the Program. All funds for the Program came from the
inmate benefit fund, which is derived from commissary sales and inmate telephone fees.
Plaintiff never filed a grievance about the Program or received a DR during his seven
months in the Program. Only after Plaintiff left the Program did he file a grievance and this
lawsuit. Plaintiff was the first inmate to complain about the Program. In response to
Plaintiff’s complaints, WCF discontinued the Program and replaced it with the Bureau of
Prisons (“BOP”) life skills program.
CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
The Program Violated the Establishment Clause Because Its Primary
Effect Was Inculcation and Indoctrination of Christian Beliefs.
The Establishment Clause Standard
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no
law respecting an establishment of religion.” U.S. Const. Amend. I. This restriction applies
to states, as well as state-created entities and their employees, through the Due Process
Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Holloman v. Harland, 370 F.3d 1252, 1284 (11th Cir.
2004). The Establishment Clause erects a barrier between government and religious entities
“‘depending on all the circumstances of a particular relationship.’” Lynch v. Donnelly, 465
U.S. 668, 678-79 (1984), (quoting Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 614 (1971)); see
McCreary Cty. v. Am. Civ. Liberties Union, 545 U.S. 844, 867 (2005) (“[U]nder the
Establishment Clause detail is key.”). For those “who wrote the Religion Clauses of the First
Amendment the ‘establishment’ of a religion connoted sponsorship, financial support, and
active involvement of the sovereign in religious activity.” Walz v. Tax Comm’n, 397 U.S.
664, 668 (1970).
The Establishment Clause applies only to state actors, which includes state and
federal governments as well as a limited class of private entities. “Where a function which is
traditionally the exclusive prerogative of the state . . . is performed by a private entity, state
action is present.” Ancata v. Prison Health Servs., Inc., 769 F.2d 700, 703 (11th Cir. 1985)
(citations omitted). For example, private medical providers treating state inmates are liable
under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for deliberate indifference to medical needs because their treatment
constitutes state action. See id.; Buckner v. Toro, 116 F.3d 450, 452 (11th Cir. 1997)
(“When a private entity . . . contracts with a county to provide medical services to inmates, it
performs a function traditionally within the exclusive prerogative of the state.”). Section
1983 also applies to the “‘acts and decisions of individual government actors.’” Brunskill v.
Boyd, 141 F. App’x 771, 775 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Holloman ex rel. Holloman v.
Harland, 370 F.3d 1252, 1284 (11th Cir. 2004)). This Court previously found, despite the
lack of direct government funding, Defendants engaged in state action in implementing the
Program. (Doc. no. 142-1, pp. 4-6.) The Court hereby reaffirms this finding.
The Supreme Court has not considered the Establishment Clause within the context of
a prison. However, in an unpublished case, the Eleventh Circuit applied the Lemon-Agostini
test to a faith-based dormitory program inside a prison. Smith v. Governor for Alabama, 562
F. App’x 806, 816 (11th Cir. 2014). The Eleventh Circuit has consistently applied the
Lemon test outside of cases involving legislative prayer. Compare King v. Richmond Cty.,
Ga., 331 F.3d 1271, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003) (applying Lemon test to court seal containing ten
commandments) and Holloman, 370 F.3d at 1284 (applying Lemon test to teacher’s moment
of silence) with Pelphrey v. Cobb Cty., Ga., 547 F.3d 1263, 1276 (11th Cir. 2008) (applying
Marsh to prayer by county commission). Thus, the Court will apply Lemon, as modified in
Agostini v. Felton, 521 U.S. 203, 211 (1997), to Plaintiff’s claims that the Life Principles
Program violates the Establishment Clause.
In Lemon, 403 U.S. at 602, the Supreme Court established a three-prong test for
assessing the permissibility of a government program under the Establishment Clause: (1) the
program “must have a secular . . . purpose;” (2) the program’s “principal or primary effect
must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion;” and (3) the program “must not foster
an excessive government entanglement with religion.” Id. at 612-13. The Supreme Court
refined the test in Agostini, however, stating, “[T]he factors we use to assess whether an
entanglement is ‘excessive’ are similar to the factors we use to examine ‘effect.’ . . . [I]t is
simplest to recognize why entanglement is significant and treat it . . . as an aspect of the
inquiry into a [program]’s effect.” 521 U.S. at 233. “Thus, while the Court has folded its
traditional ‘excessive entanglement’ inquiry into its ‘primary effect’ analysis, the substance
of its Establishment Clause jurisprudence remains fundamentally unaltered.” Holloman, 370
F.3d at 1285 (citing Zelman v. Simmons–Harris, 536 U.S. 639, 648-49 (2002)).
The Program Fails the Lemon Test.
Defendants claim the Program has the secular purpose of promoting inmates’ selfimprovement and good conduct. However, “[e]ven if the avowed objective . . . is not itself
strictly religious, it is sought to be achieved through the observance of an intrinsically
religious practice . . . . [T]he state cannot employ a religious means to serve otherwise
legitimate secular interests.” Id. at 1286 (internal quotations omitted). Moreover, as the
Supreme Court recognized, “government inculcation of religious beliefs has the
impermissible effect of advancing religion.” Agostini, 521 U.S. 223. Stated differently, the
primary effect inquiry asks “whether any religious indoctrination that occurs in [a
government program] could reasonably be attributed to governmental action.” Mitchell v.
Helms, 530 U.S. 793, 809 (2000).
Here, the Program was intrinsically religious and had the primary effect of advancing
and fostering an excessive entanglement with Christianity. The Program involved scripture
memorization, prayer, and Christian praise and worship.
The Program materials were
Christian in nature, including the Bible and a book entitled “Commands of Christ.” Even if
the Program had ostensibly secular purposes, its “intrinsically religious” nature rendered it an
impermissible means to serve that secular end.
In addition, the Program was full of religious inculcation and indoctrination, and was
the only life skills program offered at WCF. Contra Smith, 562 F. App’x at 816 (honor
dorm’s primary effect was not to advance or prohibit religion where it contained spiritual
education as “only one of 20 suggested areas of programming, all of which were secular”).
Christian indoctrination could be reasonably attributed to Defendants based on the Program’s
materials and activities. That the Program received no direct funding from the State of
Georgia does not change this outcome. See Coronel v. Walker, No. 2:05CV-120-WAP-JAD,
2006 WL 2923152, at *9 (N.D. Miss. Sept. 14, 2006), report and recommendation adopted,
No. 2:05CV120-P-D, 2006 WL 2855027 (N.D. Miss. Oct. 3, 2006) (“It seems clear that just
as the state may not constitutionally ‘establish’ a religion directly in its prisons, it may not do
so indirectly by the use of privately contracted prisons . . . . CCA must conduct itself within
the confines of the Establishment Clause.”).
Because the Program violated Plaintiff’s rights under the Establishment Clause, the
role of each Defendant in implementing the Program must be evaluated to determine which,
if any, Defendants were responsible for the violation.
Defendants CCA and Phillips Participated in the Establishment
Clause Violation, but Defendants Day, Medlin, and Hininger Did
CCA Is Directly Responsible for the Violation.
As a state actor engaging in a public function, CCA is responsible for ensuring its
vocational and life skills programs do not violate the Establishment Clause. See (doc. no.
142-1, pp. 5-6); Coronel, 2006 WL 2923152, at *9 (“CCA must conduct itself within the
confines of the Establishment Clause.”).
Here, by implementing and continuing the
Program, it failed to do so. Accordingly, Defendant CCA is responsible for the Program’s
Establishment Clause violations.
Defendant Phillips Directly Participated in the Violation.
Defendant Phillips actively participated in implementing the Program. In addition to
being the facilitator assigned to overseeing Unit 9N, Defendant Phillips regularly visited the
Program. Because he oversaw the Program throughout Plaintiff’s time, he is responsible for
the Program’s Establishment Clause violations.
Chaplain Day Had No Connection to the Program.
Although Plaintiff alleges Chaplain Day had a contractual duty to monitor the
Program, there is no evidence of such a duty. Nor does the evidence show Chaplain Day
participated in developing, implementing, or operating the Program. Accordingly, Chaplain
Day is not responsible for the Program’s Establishment Clause violations.
Defendants Medlin and Hinninger Cannot Be Held
Supervisorily Liable for the Violation.
Because neither Defendant Medlin nor Defendant Hinninger actively monitored or
participated in the day-to-day operation of the Program, they can only be held supervisorily
liable based on their positions as Warden of WCF and CEO of CCA respectively.
“Supervisory officials are not liable under § 1983 for the unconstitutional acts of their
subordinates on the basis of respondeat superior or vicarious liability.” Hartley v. Parnell,
193 F.3d 1263, 1269 (11th Cir. 1999) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see
also Dalrymple v. Reno, 334 F.3d 991, 995 (11th Cir. 2003). “Because vicarious liability is
inapplicable to § 1983 actions, a plaintiff must plead that each Government-official
defendant, through the official’s own individual actions, has violated the Constitution.” Rosa
v. Fla. Dep’t of Corr., 522 F. App’x 710, 714 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at
676) (internal quotations omitted). Therefore, to hold a supervisor liable, Plaintiff must
demonstrate that either (1) he actually participated in the alleged constitutional violation, or
(2) there is a causal connection between his actions and the alleged constitutional violation.
See Hartley, 193 F.3d at 1269 (citing Brown v. Crawford, 906 F.2d 667, 671 (11th Cir.
The “causal connection” can be established “when a history of widespread abuse puts
the responsible supervisor on notice of the need to correct the alleged deprivation, and he
fails to do so,” Brown, 906 F.2d at 671, or when “the supervisor’s improper ‘custom or
policy . . . result[s] in deliberate indifference to constitutional rights.’” Hartley, 193 F.3d at
1269 (quoting Rivas v. Freeman, 940 F.2d 1491, 1495 (11th Cir. 1991)). The standard for
demonstrating “widespread abuse” is high.
In the Eleventh Circuit, “deprivations that
constitute widespread abuse sufficient to notify the supervising official must be obvious,
flagrant, rampant and of continued duration, rather than isolated occurrences.” Brown, 906
F.2d at 671 (emphasis added). A causal connection may also be shown when the facts
support “an inference that the supervisor [or employer] directed the subordinates to act
unlawfully or knew that the subordinates would act unlawfully and failed to stop them from
doing so.” Cottone v. Jenne, 326 F.3d 1352, 1360 (11th Cir. 2003).
Here, neither Defendant Medlin nor Defendant Hinninger can be held supervisorily
Defendant Medlin testified he had no direct supervision over the Program or
Defendant Phillips. Furthermore, he had no personal knowledge of the Establishment Clause
problems with the Program, and he had already left his position as warden of WCF when
Plaintiff complained. Plaintiff was the first inmate to complain about the Program, and in
response officials at WCF abolished the Program and replaced it with the BOP life skills
program. Moreover, there is no evidence of any notice to Defendant Medlin of widespread
abuse or a custom or policy of violating the Establishment Clause. Accordingly, Defendant
Medlin is not liable for the Program’s Establishment Clause violations.
Defendant Hinninger had no connection to the Program other than his supervisory
position as CEO of CCA. All witnesses testified Defendant Hinninger never visited the
Program. Nor did he have any part in implementing the Program. Indeed, there is no reason
for the CEO of a large, nationwide private prison corporation to have an active role in
implementing and reviewing life skills programs on a prison-by-prison basis. Moreover,
Establishment Clause violations by one life skills program at one CCA facility does not
constitute the “history of widespread abuse” required to make out the required causal
connection. Accordingly, Defendant Hinninger is not liable for the Program’s Establishment
42 U.S.C. 2000cc-1 provides the following:
No government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a
person residing in or confined to an institution, as defined in section 1997 of
this title, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless
the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person-(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
(2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental
To establish a prima facie case under section 3 of RLUIPA, a plaintiff must
demonstrate (1) he engaged in a religious exercise; and (2) the religious exercise was
substantially burdened. Smith v. Allen, 502 F.3d 1255, 1276 (11th Cir. 2007) abrogated on
other grounds by Sossamon v. Texas, 563 U.S. 277 (2011). If a plaintiff makes such a
showing, the government must then demonstrate that imposition of the burden or refusal to
accommodate a plaintiff’s belief furthers a compelling government interest by the least
restrictive means. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc–1(a); 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc–2(b). “[I]f the plaintiff
fails to present evidence to support a prima facie case under RLUIPA, the court need not
inquire into whether the governmental interest at stake was compelling.” Smith, 502 F.3d at
1276; see also Benning v. Georgia, 845 F. Supp. 2d 1372, 1376-77 (M.D. Ga. 2012).
RLUIPA defines “religious exercise” broadly to include “any exercise of religion, whether or
not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” 42 U.S.C. 2000cc-5(7).
Here, Plaintiff’s religious beliefs were not substantially burdened because the
Program did not interfere with Plaintiff’s ability to practice Islam. Throughout his time in
the Program, Plaintiff was able to regularly read the Quran, pray, and attend Jumu’ah
services. None of Defendants’ actions interfered with Plaintiff’s ability to practice his
Non-interference with Plaintiff’s personal religious practice, however, does not alone
absolve Defendants. Being forced to engage in conduct that violates one’s religious beliefs
constitutes a substantial burden under RLUIPA. See Holt v. Hobbs, 135 S. Ct. 853, 862
(2015) (finding policy that coerced Muslim prisoner into shaving beard through disciplinary
report imposed substantial burden). Here, however, Plaintiff’s participation in the Program
was completely voluntary. Plaintiff was offered placement in the Program as a way to get a
bottom bunk while his profile was being renewed, and he agreed to enter the program in
order to obtain this benefit. Plaintiff further testified he joined the Program to learn about
other religions. While in the Program, he never received a disciplinary report, nor did he
complain about the Program’s Christian content. He could have left the Program at any time
without penalty, but again, voluntarily chose not to do so. Indeed, it was not until after he
completed the Program that he began to complain he was forced to participate in it. Because
he could have left the Program at any time without penalty, his religious practice was not
Accordingly, because he was a voluntary participant in the Program, Plaintiff’s rights
under RLUIPA were not violated.
Plaintiff Can Only Recover Nominal Damages.
Throughout the course of litigation, Plaintiff has argued he is entitled to
compensatory and punitive damages for his claim. However, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e) provides:
No Federal civil action may be brought by a prisoner confined in a jail, prison,
or other correctional facility, for mental or emotional injury suffered while in
custody without a prior showing of physical injury or the commission of a
sexual act (as defined in section 2246 of Title 18).
The Eleventh Circuit has applied 42 U.S.C. § 1997e to First Amendment and RLUIPA
claims and held it precludes recovery of compensatory and punitive damages. See Smith v.
Allen, 502 F.3d 1255, 1271 (11th Cir. 2007), abrogated on other grounds by Sossamon v.
Texas, 563 U.S. 277 (2011); see also (doc. no. 108, pp. 8-9; doc. no. 142-1, p. 3). However,
the PLRA does allow Plaintiff to recover nominal damages for Defendants’ Establishment
Clause violation. Id.
Accordingly, the Court awards Plaintiff nominal damages in the sum of $1.00. See
Quainoo v. City of Huntsville, Ala., 611 F. App’x 953, 955 (11th Cir. 2015) (defining
nominal damages as $1 or $100); Jones v. Crew Distrib. Co., 984 F.2d 405, 407-09 (11th Cir.
1993) (describing damages of $1 as nominal); see also Bhogaita v. Altamonte Heights
Condo. Ass’n, Inc., 765 F.3d 1277, 1291 (11th Cir. 2014) (defining “‘nominal damages’ as
‘[a] trifling sum awarded when a legal injury is suffered but there is no substantial loss or
injury to be compensated’”) (quoting Black’s Law Dictionary 447 (9th ed. 2009)).
For the reasons set forth above, the Court finds Defendants CCA and Phillips violated
Plaintiff’s rights under the Establishment Clause and awards Plaintiff $1.00 in nominal
damages against those Defendants. The Court finds Defendants Day, Medlin, and Hininger
did not violate Plaintiff’s rights under the Establishment Clause, and none of Defendants
violated Plaintiff’s rights under RLUIPA. Accordingly, Defendants are entitled to judgment
on those claims. Plaintiff’s claims for injunctive relief are moot. (See doc. no. 108, pp. 7-8.)
The Court DIRECTS the Clerk to enter judgment in accordance with this Order.
SO ORDERED this 5th day of December, 2017, at Augusta, Georgia.
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