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Rodriguez v. Bryson

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Macon Division

February 28, 2018

HJALMAR RODRIGUEZ, Jr., Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner HOMER BRYSON, et al., Defendants.

          Proceedings Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Before the U.S. Magistrate Judge

          RECOMMENDATION ON MOTION TO SEVER

          Charles H. Weigle United States Magistrate Judge

         In this case, Plaintiff brings claims against twenty-one separate defendants, raising five types of claims: (1) religious exercise claims, (2) conditions of confinement claims, (3) denial of medical care claims, (4) a retaliation claim, and (5) an equal protection claim. Defendants have filed a Motion to Sever (Doc. 100), arguing that those claims are properly the subject of five separate lawsuits and that Plaintiff's attempt to plead these claims in a single action “is an obvious ploy to aggregate as many claims and grievances as possible in one civil action in order to avoid payment of the filing fee for civil actions, and also in order to avoid the accumulation of strikes for dismissal of frivolous actions under the PLRA.” Doc. 100-1, p. 2.

         Defendants are not entitled to a severance of each of Plaintiff's claims into a separate civil action, as the claims are sufficiently related to permit joinder under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and because severance would not best serve the interests of judicial economy. The majority of Plaintiff's claims relate to his diet. Plaintiff alleges that he is a Muslim, and that his religious practice forbids him from eating meat that is not slaughtered in accordance with Islamic law. To accommodate this requirement, Plaintiff is provided with a restricted vegan diet. Plaintiff contends that this diet is nutritiously inadequate and that the food provided is “contaminated.” Plaintiff specifically alleges that the vegan diet is largely comprised of beans grown by prisoners at another facility in the State and that those beans often contain “dirt, rocks, sticks, and other foreign objects.” Doc. 1, p. 15. Based on these allegations, Plaintiff raises free exercise claims under the First Amendment and RLUIPA and conditions of confinement claims under the Eighth Amendment. Plaintiff also alleges that he cracked a tooth on a stone that was found in a serving of beans, and that he received inadequate medical care and delays in treatment in response to the injury.

         These claims are sufficiently related to one another to permit joinder under Rule 20 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 20(a)(2) authorizes a plaintiff to join claims against separate defendants “with respect to or arising out of the same transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences.” The bulk of Plaintiff's claims relate to the diet he is provided in response to his religious restrictions and thus arise out of the same series of transactions or occurrences. Plaintiff's claims also include allegations of inadequate care for a shoulder injury. Although these allegations are not connected to his diet, they raise claims against Defendant Burnside, who is also a defendant with regard to Plaintiff's claim related to his dental injury. A plaintiff may join “as many claims as it has against an opposing party” under Rule 18(a). Moreover, Plaintiff's shoulder injury claims are factually related to Plaintiff's dental injury claims, in that Plaintiff contends that Defendant Burnside administered inadequate medical care of both the dental injury and the shoulder injury in retaliation for one of Plaintiff's previous lawsuits.

         In addition to his allegations about his diet, Plaintiff alleges that policies related to showering burdened his religious beliefs regarding personal modesty. These claims are conceptually somewhat separate from his dietary complaints and are perhaps more related to claims Plaintiff has raised in a separate action, Rodriguez v. White, et al., 5:15-cv-290 (MTT), in which Plaintiff objects to strip searches. These claims, nevertheless, are against Defendants who are already joined as to the dietary claims and are sufficiently related to Plaintiff's religious liberty and equal protection claims to permit joinder under Rule 18 and Rule 20.

         Severance of Plaintiff's five types of claims into five separate actions, as the Defendants request, would not serve the interests of judicial efficiency. See, e.g., Fisher v. Ciba Specialty Chems. Corp., 245 F.R.D. 539, 542 (S.D. Ala. Jun. 20, 2007) (“The touchstone of the Rule 20 joinder/severance analysis is whether the interests of efficiency and judicial economy would be advanced”). The Court would simply have five suits to supervise rather than one, and several defendants in this action would have more than one suit to defend. Although the filing of multiple lawsuits might make it more likely that Plaintiff would incur “strikes” under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g), the Court has already found that his allegations in this case are sufficient to survive screening for frivolity under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. Defendants have answered Plaintiff's Complaint and Amended Complaint and have not moved to dismiss any claims under Rule 12(b)(6).

         Finally, Defendants argue that the joinder of defendants and claims in this action violates the spirit of qualified immunity. Defendants argue that “a vital function of the immunity is to protect a public official from the burdens of litigation - that is, from suit and not merely from liability - when no valid Constitutional claim lies against him or her.” Doc. 100-1, p. 3. Defendants have not, however, raised an argument that any specific claim against any specific Defendant is barred by qualified immunity. Nor have Defendants indicated how any specific Defendant is disproportionately burdened by having his or her case joined in this suit with claims against other Defendants or how any specific Defendant would be less burdened by having his or her case litigated in a separate action. It appears that the disproportionate burden in this case is upon Defendants' counsel, given that all twenty-one Defendants in this case are represented by a single attorney. Qualified immunity is intended to protect public officials, in their individual capacity, from the burdens of unnecessary litigation, not to protect their attorneys or any third party who might provide them with counsel. In the absence of any argument that any specific claim is barred by qualified immunity, Defendants' collective qualified immunity argument is premature.

         Accordingly, it is RECOMMENDED that Defendants' Motion to Sever (Doc. 100) be DENIED. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), the parties may serve and file written objections to this Recommendation, or seek an extension of time to file objections, WITHIN FOURTEEN (14) DAYS after being served with a copy thereof. The District Judge will make a de novo determination of those portions of the Recommendation to which objection is made. All other portions of the Recommendation may be reviewed for clear error.

         The parties are further notified that, pursuant to Eleventh Circuit Rule 3-1, “[a] party failing to object to a magistrate judge's findings or recommendations contained in a report and recommendation in accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) waives the right to challenge on appeal the district court's order based on unobjected-to factual and legal conclusions if the party was informed of the time period for objecting and the consequences on appeal for failing to object. In the absence of a proper objection, however, the court may review on appeal for plain error if necessary in the interests of justice.”

         SO RECOMMENDED, this 28th ...


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