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Gholston v. Powell

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

May 25, 2018

WILLIAM POWELL, et al., Defendants.


          Charles H. Weigle United States Magistrate Judge

         In accordance with the Court's previous order requiring the same, pro se Plaintiff Deante Gholston, an inmate currently incarcerated at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Georgia, has paid the required initial partial filing fee. Plaintiff has also filed a motion to amend his original Complaint (ECF No. 8) and a motion for a temporary restraining order (ECF No. 9). For the following reasons, Plaintiff's motion to amend is GRANTED, [1] and his religious freedom claims against Defendants shall proceed for further factual development. It is RECOMMENDED, however, that Plaintiff's motion for a temporary restraining order be DENIED.

         I. Preliminary Screening

         A. Standard of Review

          In accordance with the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), the district courts are obligated to conduct a preliminary screening of every complaint filed by a prisoner who seeks redress from a government entity, official, or employee. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). Screening is also required under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e) when the plaintiff is proceeding IFP. Both statutes apply in this case, and the standard of review is the same. When conducting preliminary screening, the Court must accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true. Boxer X v. Harris, 437 F.3d 1107, 1110 (11th Cir. 2006); Hughes v. Lott, 350 F.3d 1157, 1159-60 (11th Cir. 2003). Pro se pleadings, like the one in this case, are “held to a less stringent standard than pleadings drafted by attorneys and will, therefore, be liberally construed.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). Still, the Court must dismiss a prisoner complaint if it “(1) is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted; or (2) seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.” 28 U.S.C. §1915A(b).

         A claim is frivolous if it “lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact.” Miller v. Donald, 541 F.3d 1091, 1100 (11th Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted). The Court may dismiss claims that are based on “indisputably meritless legal” theories and “claims whose factual contentions are clearly baseless.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). A complaint fails to state a claim if it does not include “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). The factual allegations in a complaint “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level” and cannot “merely create[] a suspicion [of] a legally cognizable right of action.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (first alteration in original). In other words, the complaint must allege enough facts “to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence” supporting a claim. Id. at 556. “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         To state a claim for relief under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege that (1) an act or omission deprived him of a right, privilege, or immunity secured by the Constitution or a statute of the United States; and (2) the act or omission was committed by a person acting under color of state law. Hale v. Tallapoosa County, 50 F.3d 1579, 1582 (11th Cir. 1995). If a litigant cannot satisfy these requirements or fails to provide factual allegations in support of his claim or claims, the complaint is subject to dismissal. See Chappell v. Rich, 340 F.3d 1279, 1282-84 (11th Cir. 2003).

         B. Factual Allegations and Plaintiff's Claims

         Plaintiff's claims arise from his incarceration at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison (“GDCP”) where Plaintiff is housed in the Tier III segregation unit. Attach. 2 to Compl. 2, ECF No. 1-2. Plaintiff alleges that he is a devout Muslim who “wishes to grow a beard that is . . . palm length or longer in accordance with his religious beliefs.” Id. Plaintiff states that this requirement is “obligatory” to his religious practice. Id. In his Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that he also wishes to grow his “head hair long down to his shoulders, ” which is a practice that is not necessarily “obligatory, ” but is “lawful for the Muslim.” Attach. 1 to Mot. Am. Compl. 3, ECF No. 8-1. Plaintiff states that he sought religious exemptions to grow his beard and head hair from Defendants, but his requests were “returned to him unprocessed” and that his related grievances were denied based on Defendants' “opinions” about what his religion required. Id. at 2-3. Plaintiff contends that Defendants have thus denied him the ability to practice his religion in violation of the United States Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000c et seq. As a result of these alleged violations, Plaintiff seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, costs, and “any additional relief this Court deems just, proper, and equitable.” Id. at 5.

         The First Amendment, as applied to the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” U.S. Const. amend. I. “Although prison inmates retain protections afforded by the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause, ” prison officials may limit a prisoner's exercise of sincerely held religious beliefs if such “limitations are ‘reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.'” Johnson v. Brown, 581 Fed.Appx. 777, 780 (11th Cir. 2014) (per curiam) (quoting O'Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 349 (1987)). RLUIPA requires the government to justify any substantial burden on a prisoner's religious exercise by demonstrating a compelling governmental interest. See Smith v. Allen, 502 F.3d 1255, 1266 (11th Cir. 2007) abrogated on other grounds by Sossamon v. Texas, 131 S.Ct. 1651, 1659 (2011). “To establish a prima facie case under section 3 of RLUIPA, a plaintiff must demonstrate 1) that he engaged in a religious exercise; and 2) that the religious exercise was substantially burdened.” Smith v. Governor for Ala., 562 Fed.Appx. 806, 813 (11th Cir. 2014) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Plaintiff's allegations are sufficient to warrant further factual development. While Defendants may certainly have “legitimate penological interests” that would justify any decision not permit Plaintiff to grow his beard and head hair, at this stage of the litigation such interests are not apparent from the face of the Complaint. Johnson, 581 Fed.Appx. at 780-81 (reversing district court's dismissal of RLUIPA and First Amendment free exercise claims where prisoner's pro se complaint alleged that prison officials infringed his practice in numerous ways); Saleem v. Evans, 866 F.2d 1313, 1316 (11th Cir. 1989) (per curiam) (noting in appendix to case that generally the court should “permit dismissal of a First Amendment claim only if it involves a religious claim so facially idiosyncratic that neither a hearing nor state justification of its regulation is required”). Plaintiff's religious freedom claims must therefore proceed against Defendants.

         II. Motion for Temporary Restraining Order

         Plaintiff has also filed a motion for a temporary restraining order (“TRO”). A TRO or preliminary injunction is a drastic remedy used primarily to preserve the status quo rather than grant most or all of the substantive relief sought in the complaint. See, e.g., Cate v. Oldham, 707 F.2d 1176, 1185 (11th Cir. 1983); Fernandez-Roque v. Smith, 671 F.2d 426, 429 (11th Cir. 1982).[2] Factors a movant must show to be entitled to a TRO include: “(1) a substantial likelihood of ultimate success on the merits; (2) the TRO is necessary to prevent irreparable injury; (3) the threatened injury outweighs the harm the TRO would inflict on the non-movant; and (4) the TRO would serve the public interest.” Ingram v. Ault, 50 F.3d 898, 900 (11th Cir. 1995) (per curiam).

         At this juncture the facts have not been sufficiently developed to conclude that there is a substantial likelihood that Plaintiff will ultimately prevail on the merits of his claims or that Plaintiff will suffer immediate or irreparable injury before Defendants can be heard in opposition. Fed.R.Civ.P. 65(b)(1); see also Levine v. Comcoa Ltd., 70 F.3d 1191, 1194 (11th Cir. 1995) (Hill, J., concurring dubitante) (“An ex parte temporary restraining order is an extreme remedy to be used only with the utmost caution.”). Defendants should be afforded an opportunity to respond to Plaintiff's allegations, and any claims for ...

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