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Knott v. McLaughlin

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

March 27, 2019




         United States Magistrate Judge Charles H. Weigle recommends granting in part and denying in part Defendant Warden Gregory McLaughlin's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 38). Doc. 49. Specifically, the Magistrate Judge recommends allowing Plaintiff Jerome Knott's Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) claim to proceed to trial and dismissing his First Amendment claim. Id. Both parties have objected to the Recommendation. Docs. 50; 51. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), the Court has considered the parties' objections (Docs. 50; 51) and has made a de novo determination of the portions of the Recommendation (Doc. 49) to which the parties object. For the following reasons, the Recommendation (Doc. 49) is ADOPTED as modified.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         The Plaintiff filed this action against the Defendant in his official and individual capacities on January 30, 2017, seeking injunctive relief and $10, 000 in damages under RLUIPA and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged violations of his rights under the First Amendment. Doc. 1 at 9. Specifically, the Plaintiff alleges that on February 26, 2015, the Defendant issued a memorandum stating that inmates at Macon State Prison (MSP) no longer will be allowed “to gather or pray in any area inside of the dorms or living units, ” including the common area. Id. at 10. The Plaintiff, a Muslim inmate at MSP, states that it is “central to his faith” to offer five daily prayers “in congregation (where there are two or more Muslims present).” Id. at 7. The Plaintiff argues that the Defendant violated his First Amendment rights and RLUIPA by ordering him to offer his five daily prayers individually in his cell rather than congregationally. Id. at 8.

         Earlier, the Defendant moved to dismiss. Doc. 11. The Court, adopting the Magistrate Judge's Recommendation (Doc. 21), partially granted the Defendant's motion. Doc. 22. The Court ruled that the Plaintiff could only recover injunctive relief for the alleged RLUIPA violation because the Plaintiff could only sue the Defendant in his official capacity, and limited the Plaintiff's relief under his First Amendment claim to injunctive relief and nominal damages. Id. The motion was otherwise denied. Id. After discovery, the Defendant moved for summary judgment. Doc. 38. The Plaintiff responded. Doc. 44. The Magistrate Judge recommends (1) that the Plaintiff's RLUIPA claim proceed to trial because there are genuine issues of material fact regarding whether banning congregational prayer places a substantial burden on the Plaintiff's religious exercise and is the least restrictive means of furthering MSP's compelling interest in prison security; but (2) that the Plaintiff's First Amendment claim be dismissed because the ban was reasonably related to MSP's legitimate penological interests. Doc. 49 at 9. As will be discussed, the superficially conflicting recommendations are the result of the different standards for RLUIPA and § 1983 First Amendment Free Exercise claims. Both parties objected to the Recommendation. Docs. 50; 51.


         A court shall grant summary judgment “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A material fact is any fact relevant or necessary to the outcome of the suit, and a factual dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         The movant may support its assertion that a fact is undisputed by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for the purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A). However, “[w]hen the nonmoving party has the burden of proof at trial, the moving party is not required to ‘support its motion with affidavits or other similar material negating the opponent's claim.'” United States v. Four Parcels of Real Prop., 941 F.2d 1428, 1437 (11th Cir. 1991) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)) (emphasis in original). Rather, the moving party “simply may show . . . that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Id. at 1438 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         “Assuming the moving party has met its burden, the non-movant must then show a genuine dispute regarding any issue for which it will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Info. Sys. & Networks Corp. v. City of Atlanta, 281 F.3d 1220, 1224-25 (11th Cir. 2002) (citing Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324). “A party asserting that a fact is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by . . . citing to particular parts of materials in the record.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). “The nonmoving party does not satisfy its burden if the rebuttal evidence ‘is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative' of a disputed fact.” Jones v. UPS Ground Freight, 683 F.3d 1283, 1292 (11th Cir. 2012) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50). In a case regarding allegations of constitutional and statutory violations, the plaintiff must produce more than a “scintilla of evidence”-or evidence of which a reasonable jury could rely on to rule in the plaintiff's favor-showing that the defendant violated his constitutional and statutory rights. Presley v. Edwards, 2007 WL 174153, at *3 (M.D. Ga. 2007) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251) (other citations omitted). Further, where a party fails to address another party's assertion of fact as required by Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court may consider the fact undisputed for purposes of the motion. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(2). However, “credibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate references from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge. . . . The evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255.


         A. RLUIPA Claim

         Prison officials may not “substantially burden” prisoners' religious exercises unless the prison officials use the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest. 42 U.S.C. 2000cc-1(a). “Once a plaintiff proves that a challenged practice substantially burdens his religious exercise, the burden shifts to the defendant to show that the policy is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest.” Rich v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 716 F.3d 525, 532 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-2(b)) (other citation omitted). “RLUIPA applies strict scrutiny to government actions that substantially burden the religious exercise of institutionalized persons[.]” Benning v. Georgia, 391 F.3d 1299, 1304 (11th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted).

         In his objection, the Defendant argues that (1) the Plaintiff has not met his initial burden of showing that the Defendant's restriction on congregational prayer substantially burdens his exercise of religion; (2) even if the Defendant's restriction substantially burdens the Plaintiff's exercise of religion, the restriction is narrowly tailored and is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest; (3) the Defendant is entitled to qualified immunity;[2] and (4) the Plaintiff is not entitled to injunctive relief. Doc. 50 at 2, 7-8, 12, 14.

         1. Substantial Burden

         The Defendant argues that the Plaintiff is not substantially burdened because he “is not completely prevented from performing the five daily prayers.” Id. at 4 (emphasis added). Relying on Holt v. Hobbs, 135 S.Ct. 853 (2015), the Defendant claims his partial ban on prayer is not a substantial burden. Id. In Holt, the Supreme Court held that a prison's policy banning beards violated RLUIPA because a tenet of Hobbs' religion forbade trimming facial hair, and thus the ban completely prevented him from participating in a religiously mandated activity. 135 S.Ct. 853, 859-61 (2015). Here, the Defendant argues the Plaintiff “is free to pray in his individual cell” and “retains the ability to participate in small-group Koran study within the common areas of [MSP].” Doc. 50 at 4. In other words, the Defendant argues (1) that congregational prayer is a mere ...

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