Byrd v. Brittain et al
MEMORANDUM re R and R of MJ Mehalchick 48 and dfts' mtn for summary jgmnt 39 (Order to follow as separate docket entry) Signed by Honorable Sylvia H. Rambo on 3/31/21. (ma)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
SUPERINTENDENT BRITTAIN, :
Civil No. 1:19-CV-00059
Judge Sylvia H. Rambo
Presently before the court is the report and recommendation (“R&R”) of
United States Magistrate Judge Karoline Mehalchick (Doc. 48), which recommends
granting the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment (Doc. 39). Also pending
are the objections to the R&R filed by Plaintiff Haddrick Byrd (“Plaintiff”). (Doc.
49). For the reasons set forth below, the Court shall adopt the R&R in its entirety
and overrule the Plaintiff’s objections.
BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Upon de novo review of the record, the court adopts the R&R’s statement of
facts and procedural history concerning this pro se civil rights action. Briefly,
Plaintiff brought the above-captioned case against various officials at the State
Correctional Institution at Frackville (“SCI-Frackville”), where Plaintiff is currently
imprisoned, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Doc. 1, at 1). As for relief, Plaintiff seeks
injunctive relief and monetary damages. Defendants previously moved to dismiss
the complaint under FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6), which the Court granted in part and
denied in part. (Docs. 15, 30, 31). Specifically, the Court dismissed Plaintiff’s
retaliation and Eighth Amendment claims but allowed his First Amendment freedom
of expression claim to proceed against Correctional Officer Chandler (“CO
Chandler”), Unit Manager Dowd, Lieutenant Comisac, Superintendent Brittain, and
Chief Grievance Officer Dorina Varner (the “Grievance Officials”). (Docs. 30, 31).
The facts that form the basis of the Plaintiff’s remaining claim stem from CO
Chandler’s whistling while on duty in Plaintiff’s housing unit at SCI-Frackville.
Plaintiff maintains that CO Chandler would “constantly” whistle during his shift,
whereas Defendants assert that CO Chandler would whistle “sporadically.” (Doc.
41, ¶ 1; Doc. 46, at 2). Plaintiff, who is a Muslim, “believe[s] that whistling is calling
the devil” and stated that CO Chandler’s whistling was offensive to his beliefs and
disruptive to his prayer. (Doc. 41, ¶ 6; Doc. 46, ¶ 6).
Plaintiff submitted an inmate request to staff member form to Unit Manager
Dowd on October 19, 2017 regarding CO Chandler’s behavior. (Doc. 41, ¶ 2; Doc.
41-1). Although the written request indicated that CO Chandler’s conduct violated
the prohibition on whistling contained in the Inmate Handbook’s Supplement, it did
not specify that CO Chandler’s whistling also violated the Plaintiff’s religious
beliefs. (Doc. 41, ¶ 3). Plaintiff subsequently filed a formal grievance on October
25, 2017, which Lieutenant Comisac denied on November 2, 2017. (Doc. 41-2, at 67).
Upon appealing the denial of his grievance to Superintendent Brittain,
Plaintiff eventually received a response that correctional officers are permitted to
whistle while on duty, as the rules in the inmate handbook “are intended for inmates,
not staff.” (Doc. 41-2, at 3). However, neither Superintendent Brittain nor Lieutenant
Chomisac were aware of any Department of Corrections policies that affirmatively
allowed correctional officers to whistle while on duty in housing units. (Doc. 46, ¶
4). Superintendent Brittain’s response also verified that some practicing Muslims
“find whistling offensive,” and indicated that she would advise Lieutenant Comisac
to tell CO Chandler that his conduct offended Plaintiff. (Doc. 41, ¶ 8; Doc. 46, ¶ 8).
Lieutenant Comisac subsequently instructed CO Chandler “to stop whistling
around Plaintiff, as it was against his religious beliefs.” (Doc. 41, ¶ 9; Doc. 46, ¶ 9).
Although CO Chandler complied with this directive, he admitted that he would
“occasionally forget and catch [himself] whistling.” (Doc. 41, ¶ 10). When this
occurred, CO Chandler stated that “he would voluntarily cease when [he] realized
[he] was whistling.” (Id.) Plaintiff alleged that CO Chandler’s whistling continued
until January 2020, when CO Chandler was moved to a different housing unit at
SCI-Frackville. (Doc. 41, ¶ 11; Doc. 46, ¶ 11).
On June 12, 2020, Defendants collectively moved for summary judgment on
Plaintiff’s remaining First Amendment claim pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal
Rules of Civil Procedure. (Doc. 39). After being fully briefed (Docs. 40, 41, 45, 46),
Judge Mehalchick issued an R&R recommending that the motion for summary
judgment be granted. (Doc. 48). Specifically, the R&R determined that there was no
dispute of material fact as to whether CO Chandler violated Plaintiff’s right to Free
Exercise under First Amendment and whether the Grievance Officials were
personally involved in the alleged constitutional wrongs. Plaintiff filed objections to
the R&R on March 4, 2021, (Doc. 49), which the Court now examines in turn.
A. Review of a Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation
When objections are timely filed to a magistrate judge's report and
recommendation, the district court must conduct a de novo review of those portions
of the report to which objections are made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Brown v. Astrue,
649 F.3d 193, 195 (3d Cir. 2011). Although the standard is de novo, the extent of
review is committed to the sound discretion of the district judge, and the court may
rely on the recommendations of the magistrate judge to the extent it deems
proper. Rieder v. Apfel, 115 F. Supp. 2d 496, 499 (M.D. Pa. 2000) (citing United
States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 676 (1980)). For those sections of the report and
recommendation to which no objection is made, the court should, as a matter of good
practice, “satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record in order
to accept the recommendation.” FED. R. CIV. P. 72(b), advisory committee notes; see
also Univac Dental Co. v. Dentsply Intern., Inc., 702 F. Supp. 2d 465, 469 (M.D.
Pa. 2010) (citation omitted). Regardless of whether or not timely objections are
made, the district court may accept, not accept, or modify, in whole or in part, the
findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1);
Local Rule 72.31.
B. Summary Judgment
Through summary adjudication, the court may dispose of those claims that do
not present a “genuine dispute as to any material fact” and for which a jury trial
would be an empty and unnecessary formality. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a). The burden of
proof tasks the non-moving party to come forward with “affirmative evidence,
beyond the allegations of the pleadings,” in support of its right to relief. Pappas v.
City of Lebanon, 331 F. Supp. 2d 311, 315 (M.D. Pa. 2004); see also Celotex Corp.
v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). The court must view the evidence “in the
light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in
that party's favor.” Thomas v. Cumberland County, 749 F.3d 217, 222 (3d Cir. 2014).
This evidence must be adequate, as a matter of law, to sustain a judgment in favor
of the non-moving party on the claims. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S.
242, 250-57 (1986). Only if this threshold is met may the cause of action
proceed. See Pappas, 331 F. Supp. 2d at 315.
A. First Amendment Free Exercise Claim
In his first objection to the R&R, Plaintiff argues that the magistrate judge
misapplied the factors set forth in Turner v Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987). (Doc. 49, at
4-7). As the R&R explained, once it is established that an individual has a belief that
is sincerely held and religious in nature, the Court must apply the Turner test1 “to
determine whether the curtailment at issue is ‘reasonably related to penological
interests.’” Heleva v. Kramer, 214 F. App’x 244, 246 (3d Cir. 2007). In applying the
four-factor Turner test, the Court should look to (1) whether there is a “valid, rational
connection between the prison regulation and the legitimate governmental interest
put forward to justify it”; (2) “whether there are alternative means of exercising the
right that remain open to prison inmates”; (3) “the impact accommodation . . . will
have on guards and other inmates, and on the allocation of prison resources
generally”; and (4) whether there are “ready alternatives that could fully
accommodate[ ] the prisoner’s rights at de minimis cost to valid penological
interests.” Smith v. Kyler, 295 F. App’x 479, 481 (3d Cir. 2008). The most critical
“Although the Turner test was articulated in the context of challenges to prison regulations, as
opposed to challenges to individual conduct, the analysis in the later context is the same.” Heleva,
214 F. App’x at 246 n.1.
prong of the test is whether the challenged conduct “is reasonably related to
legitimate penological interests.” Solan v. Zickefoose, 530 F. App'x 109, 110 (3d Cir.
2013) (quoting Turner, 482 U.S. at 89). Additionally, “the burden is not on the state
to prove the validity of the challenged prison regulation but instead is on the inmate
to disprove it.” Williams v. Morton, 343 F.3d 212, 217 (3d Cir. 2003) (citing Overton
v. Bazzetta, 539 U.S. 126 (2003)).
Here, the R&R determined that the evidence of record supported the finding
that permitting correctional officers to whistle was rationally related to the legitimate
government interest in affording them minimal freedoms to cope with stress while
performing their work duties. (Doc. 48, at 10-11). Although Plaintiff contends that
allowing prison officials to whistle is arbitrary and irrational when inmates are
prohibited from doing the same, he does not point to any affirmative policy that
states correctional officers are prohibited from whistling or otherwise subject to the
rules set forth in the Prison Inmate Handbook. Second, the R&R found that there
were alternative means for Plaintiff to practice his religion. (Id. at 11-12). Indeed,
even if CO Chandler constantly whistled throughout the duration of his 2:00 PM to
10:00 PM shift, Plaintiff still had the ability to pray when CO Chandler was not
working. See Morton, 343 F.3d at 219 (finding the second Turner factor weighed in
favor of prison officials when the prison provided “Muslim inmates with the
opportunity to pray daily, attend special weekly services, and observe religious
holidays.”). Third, the R&R concluded that prohibiting guards from whistling would
be unduly burdensome to correctional officers. (Doc. 48. at 12-13). Specifically, it
would require a great amount of prison resources to enforce such a regulation and to
address any inmate complaints that arose therefrom. Fourth, the R&R reasoned that
the record supported the assertion that “a more limited policy prohibiting whistling
by corrections officers only during Muslim prayers” would be ineffective because
“there is no official time for praying or call to prayer at the prison.” (Id. at 13).
Accordingly, as there are no viable alternatives presented, the Court agrees that there
is no dispute of material fact as to whether Plaintiff’s rights could be accommodated
at de minimis cost to the valid penological interest of allowing correctional officers
to whistle as a means of relieving stress.
In sum, after careful review, the Court finds that the magistrate judge properly
applied the factors set forth Turner and determined that the actions of CO Chandler
did not violate the Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights. The Court will accordingly
overrule the Plaintiff’s objection in this regard and grant summary judgment in favor
B. Personal Involvement
Next, Plaintiff objects to the R&R’s finding that the Grievance Officials
lacked personal involvement in the challenged wrongdoings. (Doc. 49, at 7-8).
Plaintiff asserts that the Grievance Officials were personally involved because they
failed to take corrective action when they became aware of CO Chandler’s whistling.
(Id. at 7-9). Plaintiff further claims that the Grievance Officials responded to his
ongoing complaints by merely reaffirming that whistling was not prohibited by
prison guards. (Id. at 8-9). Upon review of the record, the Court is not persuaded by
The R&R explained that “a defendant in a civil rights action must have
personal involvement in the alleged wrongs to be liable and cannot be held
responsible for a constitutional violation which he or she neither participated in nor
approved.” Baraka v. McGreevey, 481, F.3d 187, 210 (3d Cir. 2007) (internal
citations omitted). In civil rights actions “[p]ersonal involvement can be shown
through allegations of personal direction or of actual knowledge and acquiescence.”
Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir. 1988). Here, the record shows
that the Grievance Officials intervened by addressing CO Chandler and instructing
him not to whistle. (Doc. 41-3, at 5; Doc. 41-4, at 5-6). Insofar as Plaintiff continued
to grieve CO Chandler’s conduct, however, the Grievance Officials further indicated
that “the issue was previously addressed” and that they had consulted with the
Religious Services Administrator regarding Plaintiff’s claims. (Doc. 45-2, at 10, 12,
15, 17, 36). Accordingly, as they did not acquiesce in the alleged constitutional
violation committed by CO Chandler, summary judgment will be granted in favor
of the Grievance Officials for lack of personal involvement.
C. Injunctive Relief and Damages
In his final objections to the R&R, Plaintiff maintains that he is entitled to
both injunctive relief and damages. (Doc. 49, at ). The R&R declined to reach this
issue, however, as it correctly concluded that Defendants were entitled to judgment
on the merits of Plaintiff’s remaining First Amendment Claim. (Doc. 48, at 7).
Therefore, as the underlying constitutional claim is without merit, the Court will
overrule the Plaintiff’s objections regarding the viability of injunctive relief and
For the reasons set forth above, the Court shall overrule the Plaintiff’s
objections and adopt the R&R in its entirety. The Court will thus grant the
Defendants’ motion for summary judgment and close this case. An appropriate order
/s/ Sylvia H. Rambo
SYLVIA H. RAMBO
United States District Judge
Dated: March 31, 2021
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