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Gholston v. Powell

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

September 11, 2019

WILLIAM POWELL, et al., Defendants.



         United States Magistrate Judge Charles H. Weigle recommends denying Plaintiff Deante Gholston's motion for summary judgment and granting in part and denying in part the Defendants' motion for summary judgment such that Gholston be permitted to proceed to trial on his claims against Defendant William Powell and the current Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison (“GDCP”) chaplain[1] under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc, et seq. Doc. 36. Both Gholston and the Defendants have objected to the Recommendation and responded to each other's objections. Docs. 38; 40; 41; 42. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), the Court has reviewed de novo the portions of the Recommendation to which the parties object. After review, the Court accepts and adopts the findings, conclusions, and recommendations of the Magistrate Judge. The Recommendation, Doc. 36, is ADOPTED and made the Order of the Court.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Deante Gholston is an inmate in the Special Management Unit (“SMU”) at GDCP. Doc. 25-3 at 3. Gholston wants to grow shoulder-length hair and a beard that is at least palm-length.[2] Doc. 8-1 at 2-3. His desire to do so is rooted in his religious beliefs and desire to follow the prophet Muhammad. Doc. 38 at 1.

         The Georgia Department of Corrections (“GDC”) has a standard operating procedure (“SOP”) that limits male prisoners' hair to three inches in length and their beards to one-half inch in length (“grooming policy”).[3] Doc. 25-19. GDC also has a SOP that provides religious accommodations for “any special religious grooming requests beyond the requirements of its grooming policy” (“religious accommodations policy”).[4] Doc. 25-20.

         On March 25, 2017, Gholston applied for a religious accommodation to grow his hair and beard. Doc. 25-3 at 11. This request was “returned to him unprocessed.” Doc. 27-1 at 1. The Defendants acknowledge they did not adhere to the approval process required by the religious accommodations policy. Doc. 25-3 at 11. Gholston was instructed to complete a second request, which he did on August 28, 2018. Id. His second request was denied on November 20, 2018 because of Gholston's “history of possessing escape tools and weapons, including items concealed on his body.” Doc. 25-21 at 1.

         Gholston filed the current action against William Powell, the Deputy Warden of Security at GDOC; James Smith, a “special agent” responsible for processing grievances; and John Muhammad, the former GDCP chaplain. Doc. 8-1 at 1-2. He sought only injunctive relief and sued each Defendant in his official capacity. Id. at 2; Doc. 29-1 at 1.

         Both parties moved for summary judgment. The Defendants argued (1) they were not proper parties to the lawsuit, because they could not provide Gholston the relief he sought, Doc. 25-1 at 8-9; (2) Gholston does not have a sincere religious belief in growing his hair longer than three inches, Id. at 11-12; (3) GDC's grooming policy furthers compelling interests in maintaining security, safety, and order, minimizing the flow of contraband, reducing violence, aiding in the quick identification of inmates, and keeping inmates clean and hygienic, Id. at 12-25; and (4) GDC's grooming policy is the least restrictive means to further these compelling interests, Id. at 25-30.

         Gholston argued summary judgment should be granted in his favor because (1) he has a sincerely held religious belief that requires shoulder-length hair and a palm-length beard, Doc. 27-1 at 1-2; (2) these sincerely held religious beliefs are substantially burdened by GDC's hair and beard length requirements, Id. at 4; and (3) the Defendants failed to show the hair and beard length requirements are the least restrictive means to further any compelling governmental interest, Id. at 5-9.

         The Magistrate Judge recommends granting Defendant James D. Smith's motion for summary judgment on the grounds that the record does not show any personal wrongdoing by Smith; Smith has no connection to the GDC's grooming or religious accommodations policies; Smith is incapable of providing Gholston any relief; and Smith's only involvement in the underlying conduct was the denial of a prison grievance. Doc. 36 at 5-7. To the extent that the initial screening order in this case noted distinct First Amendment claims, the Magistrate Judge recommended that such claims be deemed abandoned and dismissed. Id. at 3. Finally, he determined that as to both Plaintiff's hair-length and beard-length claims, genuine issues of material fact precluded summary judgment for either Gholston, Powell, or Muhammad (now Miller). Id. at 8-20.

         For the following reasons, the Recommendation is ADOPTED.



         The United States Magistrate Judge recommends that any First Amendment claims be deemed abandoned and dismissed. In his complaint, Gholston expressly referenced only RLUIPA. Doc. 36 at 2. In their cross motions for summary judgment, the parties did not raise or litigate any First Amendment claims. Id. The parties have not objected to the Magistrate Judge's recommendation to dismiss any First Amendment claims. The Court accepts and adopts this recommendation, and any First Amendment claims are deemed abandoned and DISMISSED.


         The United States Magistrate Judge recommends granting summary judgment to Defendant James D. Smith. Doc. 36 at 5-7. Neither party has objected to this recommendation. The Court accepts and adopts these findings and GRANTS Smith's motion for summary judgment.

         Powell and Muhammad (now Miller) also moved for summary judgment on the grounds that they have no connection to the grooming policy or religious accommodations policy and are incapable of providing Gholston any relief. Doc. 25-1 at 8-9. The United States Magistrate Judge recommends denying their motion. Doc. 36 at 4-8. He found that both Defendants are connected to the religious accommodations policy because the procedure contemplates review by Miller, as the prison chaplain, and Powell as the “Warden/Superintendent.” Doc. 25-20 at 4. The Magistrate Judge also found that Powell bears a connection to GDC's policy of forced shaves and haircuts. Id. at 6 (quoting Doc. 25-21 at 1-2). Powell and Miller objected to these findings. Doc. 40.

         The record supports the Magistrate Judge's findings that Miller and Powell have some connection to the religious accommodation policy. Doc. 36 at 6. But Powell and Miller argue the Magistrate Judge “failed to consider whether the parties can provide the relief that Gholston seeks: namely, that Gholston be granted a religious accommodation in contravention of GDC's policies.” Doc. 40 at 3. Powell and Miller state that they have no “decision making authority over religious accommodations, the authority to amend GDC policies, or the authority to deviate from GDC grooming policies.” Id. at 4. Miller states that he conducts the initial review of a religious accommodations request and provides only a recommendation, which may or may not be accepted by the Regional Manager, Field Operations Director, Director of Chaplaincy Services, and General Counsel.[5] Doc. 40 at 5. According to Miller, “[t]here is no presumption that the other individuals must accept the chaplain's recommendation or that his recommendation will ultimately be the final result. Four other individuals have to approve the request before it can come to fruition for the inmate.” Id. (citing Docs. 25-2; 25-20 at 7, 10).

         Powell argues there is no support for the Magistrate Judge's finding that he is “‘in practice . . . the superintendent, and that Powell ‘ran [the] GDCP . . . as if he was the superintendent who has [a] part in [the] religious accommodation [process].'” Doc. 36 at 6 (quoting Doc. 29-1 at 6). While the parties disagree as to Powell's role and responsibility, the record supports this finding. Doc. 29-1 at 6 (stating that Powell “in practice was [the] superintendent”). Powell argues even if this is true, the record shows that the Warden/Superintendent does not have the final authority to grant or deny a religious accommodation. Instead, just like the chaplain, he makes only a recommendation.

         Though the Defendants' statements regarding who must approve a religious accommodations request are conflicting, there is support in the record for Miller and Powell's argument that they lack decision-making authority over the religious accommodations policy, at least when that policy's required procedures are followed. Their lack of authority is demonstrated by what transpired when Gholston submitted his second request for a religious accommodation. Both the Facility Chaplain and the Warden/Superintendent approved his request. Doc. 25-21. Gholston's request was, however, ultimately denied because the Regional Manager, Facility Operations Director/Designee, Director of Chaplaincy Services, and General Counsel/Designee disapproved the request. Id. Thus, it seems when the Defendants adhere to the approval procedure called for in the religious accommodations policy, Miller and Powell do not have the authority to grant Gholston's religious accommodations request to grow a palm-length beard or shoulder-length hair.

         But there are allegations that the approval process required by the religious accommodations policy is not adhered to. Defendants admit that the approval process was not followed when Gholston made his first request for a religious accommodation on March 25, 2017. Doc. 25-3 at 11. Gholston states that his request was “returned to him unprocessed, along with Chaplain Muhammad's [Miller's predecessor] opinions and wrong understanding of the religious practice.” Doc. 27-1 at 1. Thereafter, according to Gholston, he met with both Powell and the chaplain and they opposed his request “due to their opinions of the religion. . . .” Id. Thus, Gholston states these two Defendants have personally participated in denying him the proper process required by the religious accommodations policy. Doc. 29-1 at 5. Gholston has also provided additional evidence showing a later November 2018 request for religious accommodations was ...

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