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Forehand v. Sapp

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

November 8, 2019

LORENZO FOREHAND, Plaintiff,
v.
CHAPLAIN MICHAEL SAPP, Defendant.

          ORDER

          MARC T. TREADWELL, JUDGE

         The Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Michael Sapp prevented him from observing the Nation of Islam's December fast, in violation of the First Amendment, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Doc. 18 at 1. The parties filed cross-motions for partial summary judgment. Docs. 21; 25. United States Magistrate Judge Charles H. Weigle recommends granting both motions and, accordingly, entering judgment for the Defendant on the Plaintiff's RLUIPA claim, limiting the Plaintiff's Free Exercise claim to nominal damages only, and entering judgment for the Plaintiff on his Free Exercise claim for nominal damages. The Defendant filed an objection; the Plaintiff did not.

         A. The Defendant's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment

         The Magistrate Judge recommends granting the Defendant's motion for partial summary judgment because the Plaintiff's claims for injunctive relief are moot, the Prison Litigation Reform Act bars the Plaintiff from recovering more than nominal damages on his Free Exercise claim without physical injury, any official capacity claims are barred, and RLUIPA does not allow recovery of damages. Doc. 40 at 5-6. The Plaintiff has not objected, so pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), the Court reviews for clear error.[1] After review, the Court accepts and adopts the findings, conclusions, and recommendations of the Magistrate Judge. The Recommendation to grant the Defendant's motion for partial summary judgment (Doc. 40 at 5-6) is ADOPTED and made the Order of the Court. The Defendant's motion for partial summary judgment (Doc. 25) is therefore GRANTED, the Plaintiff's RLUIPA claim is DISMISSED without prejudice, and the Plaintiff's Free Exercise claim shall be limited to nominal damages.

         B. The Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment

         The Plaintiff moved for partial summary judgment on his Free Exercise claim. With the understanding that the Plaintiff's relief will be limited to nominal damages, as discussed above, the Magistrate Judge recommends granting the Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment. Doc. 40 at 12. The Defendant objects, so pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), the Court reviews the Recommendation de novo.

         The Defendant's objection argues the Plaintiff's claim is barred by qualified immunity. Doc. 42 at 3. The Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, as noted above, but did not argue in that motion that he was entitled to qualified immunity. Doc. 25. Rather, the Defendant argued qualified immunity for the first time in response to the Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment. Specifically, the Defendant argued that “there is at least a disputed issue of fact as to whether Defendant Sapp is entitled to qualified immunity due to following policy.” Doc. 33 at 7; see Doc. 42 at 5-6. But that argument fails because there are no factual disputes regarding the Free Exercise claim. See Doc. 40 at 7. In reality, the Defendant's qualified immunity argument is legal, not factual: it raises the question of whether the Defendant's refusal to allow the Plaintiff's observance of a religious fast ran afoul of clearly established law. That does not create a fact issue. And the Defendant did not move for summary judgment on that ground.

         But even if the Defendant had properly moved for summary judgment on qualified immunity, that motion would have been denied. As the Magistrate Judge noted, the right of Muslim prisoners to observe holidays is clearly established. Doc. 40 at 10. Here, the Plaintiff wanted to observe the December fast, he was not allowed to observe it, and the Defendant has proffered no penological justification for prohibiting that observance.[2] The Defendant also argues there is some evidence that he was following prison policies in prohibiting the Plaintiff's observance of Ramadan. Doc. 33 at 7. But in the absence of authority indicating that following policy is a safe harbor from liability, whether the Defendant was following policy is not relevant.[3] In the absence of a dispute of fact, qualified immunity is a legal issue, not a jury issue. See Ansley v. Heinrich, 925 F.2d 1339, 1344-48 (11th Cir. 1991) (discussing the procedure for resolving a qualified immunity defense). And the Court finds the law prohibiting the Defendant's conduct was clearly established.

         For those reasons, the Court accepts and adopts the findings, conclusions, and recommendations of the Magistrate Judge. The Recommendation to grant the Plaintiff's partial motion for summary judgment (Doc. 40 at 12) is ADOPTED and made the Order of the Court. The Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment (Doc. 21) is GRANTED, and the Plaintiff is entitled to nominal damages on his Free Exercise claim.

         C. The Plaintiff's Equal Protection Claim

         Finally, because neither party addressed the equal protection claim in their motions, the Magistrate Judge ordered the Plaintiff to notify the Court if he wished to pursue that claim. Doc. 40 at 13. The Plaintiff responded that he has not abandoned that claim. Doc. 41.

         The Defendant now argues that the Plaintiff's original complaint, which contained an equal protection claim, was superseded by his amended complaint, which did not. Doc. 44 at 1. But the amended complaint clearly was not an effort by the Plaintiff to restate the claims he had stated in his original complaint. Rather, the purpose of the amended complaint was to join additional parties. No doubt for that reason, the Magistrate Judge screened both complaints and concluded that the Plaintiff's claims, including his equal protection claim, should go forward.[4] See Docs. 16; 18 at 1 (“The Plaintiff . . . alleg[es] that Defendant Sapp prevented him from observing the Nation of Islam's December Fast, in violation of the First Amendment, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”).

         Still, there has been, understandably, some confusion regarding whether the Plaintiff actually intended to pursue an equal protection claim. Moreover, his equal protection claim arguably is superfluous of his free exercise claim and, not incidentally, much harder to prove. That, presumably, is why the Plaintiff did not move for summary judgment on his equal protection claim. Now that the Court has ruled as a matter of law that he has prevailed on that free exercise claim and because it's not clear what purpose an equal protection claim would now serve, the Plaintiff may choose to abandon that claim. In any event, the Plaintiff's allegations in support of his equal protection claim are conclusory. Indeed, the Defendant's objection to the Plaintiff's announcement that he has not abandoned his equal protection claim is, in substance, a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Accordingly, if the Plaintiff, having prevailed on his free exercise claim, still intends to pursue his equal protection claim, he shall amend Count 3 of his complaint to allege specifically the facts upon which his claim is based, including, but not limited to, the facts supporting his allegation that the Defendant “treat[ed] him unequally different from the Christian believers.” Doc. 1-1 at 17. The Plaintiff shall file his amended Count 3 within twenty-one days of the filing of this Order. No extensions shall be granted.

         SO ...


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