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Knight v. Shults

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Northern Division

February 11, 2019




         Plaintiff Knight is currently incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Complex (“FCC”) in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and files the instant Complaint, pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971) against prison officials for allegedly violating his First Amendment constitutional rights, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and the Equal Protection Clause. Knight alleges that Defendants: Warden L. Shults; Food Service Administrator Z. Lee; and, Assistant Food Service Administrator J. Paxton, improperly denied him the Nation of Islam's Annual Ceremonial meal in accordance with the Bureau of Prison's (BOP) policy.[1] Defendant Shults requests an order of dismissal pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1), for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, or in the alternative, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Having considered the submissions of the parties and the applicable law, the undersigned recommends as follows.

         In the instant case, Plaintiff alleges that he submitted a request, on January 3, 2017, to be served the Nation of Islam's Ceremonial Meal on February 26, 2017, in commemoration of the birth of the religion's founder. Yet, despite receiving the approval of “Religious Services and Food Services, ” Plaintiff asserts that he was not provided the requested ceremonial meal, which was to consist of: fried fish, steamed broccoli, navy bean soup, vegetable fried rice, macaroni and cheese, banana, and a non-meat option for fish. Plaintiff states that “[u]pon arrival at Food Service with Chaplain Saccucci on 2/28/17 we found . . . that the meal was changed by Mr. Lee to the Chicken patty meal served [to the inmate population] at lunch.” Specifically, he alleges that Defendant Paxton agreed to the meal and then later ordered Defendant Lee to deny the meal based on an erroneous interpretation and/or application of BOP policy. According to Plaintiff, Defendant Shults's error was “in agreeing with them;” more specifically, “[h]is misunderstanding and failure to enforce applicable law and BOP Policy caused him to err in treating [Plaintiff's] religious community in a discriminatory manner as opposed to the general population.” Plaintiff seeks injunctive and declaratory relief as well as punitive damages in the amount of $10, 000, 000 because “no meal was consumed by the group for that afternoon.”[2]


         Summary judgment is appropriate only when the moving party can demonstrate 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 dispute is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-movant. Nickell v. Beau View of Biloxi, L.L.C., 636 F.3d 752, 754 (5th Cir. 2011) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A fact is material if its resolution in favor of one party might affect the outcome of the case. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. The evidence and any inferences therefrom are viewed in the light most favorable to the non-movant. First Colony Life Ins. Co. v. Sanford, 555 F.3d 177, 180 (5th Cir. 2009). If, on a motion under Rule 12(b)(6), matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the court, the motion must be treated as one for summary judgment under Rule 56. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d).

         Because Defendants rely on matters outside the pleadings, the motion to dismiss should be construed as a motion for summary judgment. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b); Young v. Biggers, 938 F.2d 565, 568 (5th Cir.1991).


         A. First Amendment Free Exercise Claim

         The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment requires the government to refrain from interfering with the religious beliefs and practices of individuals. Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709, 719 (2005). As a prisoner, however, Plaintiff retains only those First Amendment freedoms which are “not inconsistent with his status as a prisoner or with legitimate penological objectives of the corrections system.” Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S. 817, 822 (1974). Therefore, a government regulation may interfere with the religious beliefs and practices of a prisoner if it is reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest. Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 89 (1987) (setting out four-factor test for determining whether a prison regulation that infringes on an inmate's First Amendment rights is nonetheless reasonable and therefore constitutionally valid); see also Butts v. Martin, 877 F.3d 571, 585 (5th Cir. 2017) (noting that “free exercise claims in this Circuit are analyzed under the Turner framework separately and independently from RFRA and RLUIPA claims”).

         In Bivens, the United States Supreme Court established that the Constitution may support a private cause of action against federal officials for constitutional torts and allowed the victims of a Fourth Amendment violation by federal officers to sue the officers for monetary damages in federal court. 403 U.S. at 388. Plaintiff asserts that he is entitled to Bivens damages because Defendants violated his First Amendment right to freely exercise his religious beliefs.

         A Bivens action is the counterpart for those acting under color of federal law of a suit brought under § 1983. Dean v. Gladney, 621 F.2d 1331, 1336 (5th Cir. 1980). Because its purpose “is to deter individual federal officers from committing constitutional violations, ” Correctional Services Corp. v. Malesko, 534 U.S. 61, 70 (2001), it may only be maintained against a defendant in his or her individual capacity. Id. at 72 (“The prisoner may not bring a Bivens claim against the officer's employer, the United States, or the BOP.”). Accordingly, to the extent Plaintiff is attempting to assert a Bivens claim against Warden Shults in his official capacity, he fails to state a viable claim. To the extent Plaintiff brings an individual-capacity claim, however, he is not entitled to a Bivens remedy for the reasons that follow. Wilkie v. Robbins, 551 U.S. 537, 550 (2007).

         There is first a question of whether Bivens applies to a First Amendment claim.[3]Assuming for purposes of argument that it did apply, Plaintiff would still not be entitled to relief for reasons explained herein. The undersigned has considered the record and applicable law and finds that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact regarding Plaintiff's First Amendment claims against Defendant Shults because there is no supervisory liability under Bivens. Thus, it is unnecessary for the Court to decide whether Bivens extends to First Amendment claims.

         Defendant Shults asserts that Plaintiff fails to state a Bivens claim against him because Plaintiff does not provide any evidence that he personally participated in the conduct, and he cannot be held vicariously liable for alleged violations based on his supervisory responsibilities over other prison officials. In his affidavit, Defendant Shults states:

In his Complaint, Plaintiff, Prince Knight states that I agreed with the other named defendants' decision to deny him a ceremonial meal. Inmate Knight also claims I failed to enforce the applicable law and policy and that I discriminated against him and his religious community.
Plaintiff, however, fails to explain my direct, personal involvement in the alleged constitutional violations. I aver that I was not personally involved in any alleged decision by the named defendants to deny Plaintiff a ceremonial meal. I was not involved in the planning or scheduling of the February 28, 2017, ceremonial meal Plaintiff [sic]. My duties as Warden involve general oversight and administration. As many wardens routinely do, I rely on the institution's ...

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