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Barrera-Avila v. Watts

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Brunswick Division

March 8, 2017




         This matter is before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, or in the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 14.) For the reasons set forth below, I RECOMMEND that the Court GRANT Defendants' Motion to Dismiss and DISMISS Plaintiff's Complaint. Specifically, the Court should DISMISS WITH PREJUDICE Plaintiff's claims for monetary damages against Defendants in their official capacities, his RFRA claims for monetary damages, and his FTCA claims in their entirety. I further RECOMMEND that the Court DISMISS Plaintiff's Bivens claims for monetary damages WITHOUT PREJUDICE and DISMISS AS MOOT Plaintiff's declaratory and injunctive relief claims. Additionally, the Court should DENY Plaintiff leave to appeal in forma pauperis and DIRECT the Clerk of Court to close this case.


         Plaintiff, who was previously incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institute in Jesup, Georgia (“FCI Jesup”), submitted a Complaint in the above captioned action contesting certain conditions of his confinement. Plaintiff believes and practices the Santeria religion and alleges that Defendants deprived him of the ability to practice his sincerely held religious beliefs. (Doc. 12.)

         Specifically, Plaintiff claims that Defendant Kenneth Harris, the Supervisory Chaplain at FCI Jesup, created a policy eliminating the practice of the “Spiritual Mass” ceremony. (Id. at pp. 3-4.) This policy was carried out by Defendant Sam Kirchoff, the Chaplain at FCI Jesup. (Id.) Plaintiff maintains that prior to Defendant Harris' arrival at FCI Jesup in November of 2014, there was a “Standardized Spiritual Mass” for Santeria practitioners at the Prison. (Id. at p. 10.) This “Standardized Mass” for Santeria allowed, among other things, for each practitioner to receive a half-cut cigar “so that the practitioner could properly invoke [his] own spiritual protectors” and “cleanse [himself] with it.” (Id.) This practice was implemented without any security or safety issues. (Id.) However, on or about November 17, 2014, Defendant Harris terminated the practice of providing each practitioner a cigar and instead only allowed two cigars for the ceremony. (Id. at p. 10.)

         Plaintiff maintains that, due to the sharing of cigars, Santeria practitioners were exposed to health risks and could not properly perform the religious ceremony. As for the health risks, Plaintiff contends that he suffered from “throat pain; troubling [sic] swallowing; sinuses; Body Aches; Headaches; Fatigue; loss of weight; loss of sleep, as one of the practitioners was sick with the flu.” (Id. at p. 12.) He describes his ailments as “serious inhibition of the ability of Plaintiff to eat, chew, lack of ability to masticate food without causing pain and suffering to the Plaintiff's throat; and the inability to engage in the normal life activities, including sleeping, physical exercise, loss of nutrition deficiencies from inability to eat and chew.” (Id. at pp. 12- 13.) At the time of his Amended Complaint, Plaintiff stated that he suffered these symptoms “for almost a month” and had not recovered. (Id. at p. 13.)

         Plaintiff also contends that Defendants interfered with Santeria practitioners' worship in other ways. He alleges that, due to Santeria practitioners' use of food offerings during Spiritual Mass, Defendant Harris relocated Santeria worship services outdoors because food is not allowed in the chapel. (Id. at p. 11.) However, Defendant Harris allows Jewish worshipers to bring challa bread, matzo, and beverages into the chapel during religious services. (Id.) Plaintiff also alleges that prison staff failed to provide supplies to the Santerian practitioners and that Defendants unnecessarily burdened Santerian inmates' receipt of religious items. (Id.)

         Plaintiff sued Defendants in their individual and official capacities and contended that they violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), 42 U.S.C. §2000bb, et seq., the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), and the First, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. (Doc. 12.) He requested compensatory and punitive damages in the amount of $320.00 per day per Defendant. (Id. at pp. 14-15.) He also requests court costs and expenses, and “declaratory and injunctive relief” against each Defendant. (Id. at p. 14.)

         Plaintiff originally filed this action the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Defendants moved that court to either dismiss Plaintiff's case or transfer the case to this District. (Doc. 14.) Among other things, they contended that the District of Columbia court lacked jurisdiction over them, because they reside in this District and the events giving rise to Plaintiff's claims occurred in this District. (Doc. 14-1, pp. 16-22.) Defendants also argued that they were immune from suit in their official capacities, and Plaintiff failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted against them in their individual capacities. Plaintiff filed a response to Defendants' Motion, (doc. 24), and Defendants filed a reply, (doc. 29.). In the interim, Plaintiff was transferred from FCI Jesup to Yazoo City Low Federal Correctional Institute. (Doc. 28.)

         The District of Columbia court ultimately granted Defendants' request to transfer the case to this Court. (Doc. 30.) However, that court left pending Defendants' arguments for dismissal which this Court now addresses.


         When ruling on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the Court must “accept[ ] the allegations in the complaint as true and constru[e] them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Belanger v. Salvation Army, 556 F.3d 1153, 1155 (11th Cir. 2009). “A complaint must state a facially plausible claim for relief, and ‘[a] claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.'” Wooten v. Quicken Loans, Inc., 626 F.3d 1187, 1196 (11th Cir. 2010) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). “A pleading that offers labels and conclusions or a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action” does not suffice. Ashcroft, 556 U.S. at 678.

         “The plausibility standard is not akin to a probability requirement, but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully. Where a complaint pleads facts that are merely consistent with a defendant's liability, it stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.” Id. (internal punctuation and citation omitted). While a court must accept all factual allegations in a complaint as true, this tenet “is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, ” are insufficient. Id.

         In its analysis, the Court will abide by the long-standing principle that the pleadings of unrepresented parties are held to a less stringent standard than those drafted by attorneys and, therefore, must be liberally construed. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972); Boxer X v. Harris, 437 F.3d 1107, 1110 (11th Cir. 2006) (“Pro se pleadings are held to a less stringent standard than pleadings drafted by attorneys.”) (emphasis omitted) (quoting Hughes v. Lott, 350 F.3d 1157, 1160 (11th Cir. 2003)). However, Plaintiff's unrepresented status will not excuse mistakes regarding procedural rules. McNeil v. United States, 508 U.S. 106, 113 (1993) (“We have never suggested that procedural rules in ordinary civil litigation should be interpreted so as to excuse mistakes by those who proceed without counsel.”).


         I. Dismissal of Official Capacity Claims for Monetary Damages

         Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971) (“Bivens”) and RFRA. “Bivens only applies to claims against federal officers in their individual capacities; it does not create a cause of action for federal officers sued in their official capacities.” Sharma v. Drug Enf't Agency, 511 F. App'x 898, 901 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Corr. Servs. Corp. v. Malesko, 534 U.S. 61, 69-71 (2001)). Moreover, the Eleventh Circuit has held that Congress did not unequivocally waive the Government's sovereign immunity through RFRA. Davila v. Gladden, 777 F.3d 1198, 1210-11 (11th Cir. 2015). Therefore, RFRA does not authorize suits for money damages against federal officers in their official capacities. Id. Thus, the Court should DISMISS WITH PREJUDICE Plaintiff's Bivens and RFRA claims for money damages against Defendants in their official capacities.[1]

         II. Dismissal of RFRA Claims ...

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