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Odom v. Dixion

February 15, 2008

JONATHAN ODOM, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THOMAS DIXION, DON LOPES, JEFF SEKUTERSKI, C. JABCUGA, C. PETTIES, SGT. MARKOWSKI, AND JOHN DOE, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Leslie G. Foschio United States Magistrate Judge

(consent)

DECISION and ORDER

JURISDICTION

On October 24, 2005, the parties to this action consented to proceed before the undersigned. The matter is presently before the court on Defendants' motion for summary judgment (Doc. No. 47), filed December 14, 2006.

BACKGROUND and FACTS*fn1

Plaintiff Jonathan Odom ("Plaintiff") commenced this civil rights action on November 8, 2004, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985, alleging Defendants, employees of the New York State Department of Corrections ("DOCS"), at Attica Correctional Facility ("Attica"), where Plaintiff was then incarcerated, violated his constitutional rights by denying him properly prepared kosher meals in accordance with Plaintiff's religious beliefs, and by harassing and retaliating against Plaintiff when he filed grievances regarding the alleged denial of such meals. The Complaint names as Defendants Lieutenant Thomas Dixon*fn2 ("Lt. Dixon"), Attica Food Services Administrator II Donald Lopes ("Lopes"), Correction Officer ("C.O.") Christopher Jabcuga ("Jabcuga"), Sergeant S. Markowski ("Sgt. Markowski"), C.O. Corey Petties ("Petties"), Sergeant Jeff Sekuterski ("Sgt. Sekuterski"), and John Doe ("Doe"). Plaintiff specifically alleges as his First Cause of Action a denial of the right to freely exercise his religion in violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ("RFRA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb et seq., and a denial of equal protection in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, and, as his Second Cause of Action, retaliation for filing grievances in violation of the First Amendment, and an Eighth Amendment excessive force claim.

The gravamen of Plaintiff's religious freedom and equal protection claims concerns his kosher diet, referred to as the "cold alternative diet" or "CAD." On September 1, 2004, Plaintiff filed Inmate Grievances Nos. 47427-04 and 47428-04 ("the Grievances"), complaining about the manner in which the CAD meals were provided to Plaintiff. According to Plaintiff, Defendants failed to provide Plaintiff with the proper utensils to open hermetically sealed kosher food packs, or with hot water for his instant oatmeal and coffee, permitted a non-Jewish inmate to prepare Plaintiff's kosher food, in violation of the dietary rules of the Jewish religion ("the kashrut"), deprived Plaintiff of a proper meal with which to break his fast during Yom Kippur on September 25, 2004, failed to provide Plaintiff with kosher meals while in keeplock on October 1, 6, 7, 10 and 11, 2004, and refused to permit Plaintiff to take certain food items from the assigned mess hall to Plaintiff's cell. Complaint, First Cause of Action. As for the retaliation and excessive force claims, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants retaliated against Plaintiff for filing the Grievances regarding the alleged kosher food plan violations, including the denial of kosher meals, threatening Plaintiff with bodily harm if he continued to pursue his grievances, and, on October 15, 2004, flooding Plaintiff's cell with water, and physically assaulting Plaintiff, causing Plaintiff to sustain injuries. Complaint, Second Cause of Action.

In support of Plaintiff's allegation that he has exhausted all available administrative remedies relative to his claims as required under the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1986 ("the PLRA"), 110 Stat. 1321 (1996), codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1997e, Plaintiff attaches to the Complaint a copy of a letter from DOCS Inmate Grievance Program Director Thomas G. Eagen, dated October 12, 2004, acknowledging receipt of Plaintiff's correspondence dated September 29, 2004, pertaining to two inmate grievances, specifically, Grievances Nos. 47427/04 and 47428/04 ("the grievances"), raising the issues alleged in this action, and advising that Plaintiff's concerns asserted in the grievances had already been addressed by the Inmate Grievance Program Supervisor on September 30, 2004.

In a Decision and Order filed May 24, 2005 (Doc. No. 13) ("May 24, 2005 Decision and Order"), District Judge Charles J. Siragusa, sua sponte, converted Plaintiff's RFRA claim to a claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 ("the RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1, and permitted the First Cause of Action asserting Plaintiff's claims under the RLUIPA, and the First and Fourteenth Amendments, to proceed only against Defendants Dixon, Lopes and Jabcuga, dismissed such claim as against the other Defendants, thereby dismissing the First Amendment and RLUIPA religious claims and the Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim against Defendants Sekuterski, Petties, Markowski and Doe. May 24, 2005 Decision and Order at 5-8. Judge Siragusa, also sua sponte, permitted Plaintiff's Second Cause of Action alleging First Amendment retaliation and Eight Amendment excessive force claims to proceed only against Defendants Dixon, Markowski and Petties, and dismissed such claims as to the remaining named Defendants, i.e., Lopes and Jabcuga. Id. at 8-11. Finally, Judge Siragusa dismissed Plaintiff's § 1985 conspiracy claim as against all Defendants for failing to allege with any specificity that any "meeting of the minds" occurred as required for a conspiracy under § 1985. Id. at 12-13.

On December 14, 2006, Defendants filed the instant motion for summary judgment (Doc. No. 47) ("Defendants' motion"), along with a Memorandum of Law (Doc. No. 48) ("Defendants' Memorandum"), a Statement of Undisputed Facts (Doc. No. 49) ("Defendants' Statement of Facts"), and the Declarations of Lt. Dixon (Doc. No. 50) ("Dixon Declaration") with attached exhibits A through P ("Dixon Declaration Exh(s). __"), Attica Registered Nurse Vance Hawley (Doc. No. 51) ("Hawley Declaration"), Jabcuga (Doc. No. 52) ("Jabcuga Declaration"), Lopes (Doc. No. 53) ("Lopes Declaration"), Markowski (Doc. No. 54) ("Markowski Declaration"), Rabbi Arthur Morgenstern ("Rabbi Morgenstern") (Doc. No. 55) ("Rabbi Morgenstern Declaration"), and Petties (Doc No. 56) ("Petties Declaration").

In light of Plaintiff's pro se status, on December 29, 2006, a notice to Plaintiff pursuant to Local Rule of Civil Procedures 56.2 and Irby v. New York City Transit Authority, 262 F.3d 412, 413 (2d Cir. 2001) (Doc. No. 58) ("IRBY notice"), was mailed to Plaintiff, advising Plaintiff that Defendants had moved the court to decide Plaintiff's claims against Plaintiff, without a trial and based only on written materials submitted in support of Defendant's motion. The IRBY notice further advised Plaintiff that to avoid summary judgment being granted in Defendants' favor, it was necessary to file papers, including sworn affidavits, establishing the existence of a material issue of fact, and that any material issue of undisputed fact set forth in Defendants' Statement of Facts would be deemed admitted if not controverted by Plaintiff.

An Order filed January 3, 2007 (Doc. No. 59), established February 16, 2007, as Plaintiff's deadline for filing a response opposing Defendants' motion, and March 2, 2007 as Defendants' deadline for filing any reply in further support of the motion. Plaintiff did not timely respond in opposition to summary judgment and, on March 1, 2007, Defendants filed the Declaration of Assistant Attorney General Kim S. Murphy ("Murphy") (Doc. No. 60) ("Murphy Declaration"), requesting summary judgment be granted in Defendants' favor and the case be dismissed. By letter filed March 8, 2007 (Doc. No. 61) ("March 8, 2007 letter"), Plaintiff advised that during a recent transfer between prison facilities, his legal materials and papers were destroyed such that Plaintiff was unable to further litigate the instant action, and requested the action be terminated. Accordingly, on March 9, 2007, the undersigned entered an order (Doc. No. 62) ("the Dismissal Order"), granting Plaintiff's request and directing the file be closed. On March 19, 2007, Plaintiff filed a motion (Doc. No. 63), to vacate the Dismissal Order, explaining that the March 8, 2007 letter was intended only to advise the court of Plaintiff's inability to timely respond in opposition to Defendants' motion, rather than to request the action be terminated. Defendants' response in opposition to the motion was filed on April 3, 2007, and, on April 13, 2007, Plaintiff filed a reply in further support of the motion to vacate. By Order filed March 23, 2007 (Doc. No. 69), the undersigned granted Plaintiff's motion to vacate the Dismissal Order, and set July 31, 2007 as the deadline for Plaintiff to file a response in opposition to summary judgment, and August 31, 2007 as Defendants' deadline to file any reply.

On August 20, 2007, Plaintiff filed in opposition to summary judgment a Declaration (Doc. No. 73) ("Plaintiff's Declaration"), with attached exhibits A through M ("Plaintiff's Exh(s). __"), a Brief in Opposition to Defendants' Summary Judgment Motion (Doc. No. 74) ("Plaintiff's Memorandum"), a Statement of Disputed Factual Issues (Doc. No. 75) ("Plaintiff's Statement of Facts"), and the Declaration of Marquis Brooks (Doc. No. 76) ("Brooks Declaration").

In further support of summary judgment, Defendants filed on September 18, 2007, the Reply Declaration of Assistant Attorney General Kim S. Murphy (Doc. No. 78) ("Murphy Reply Declaration"). On October 17, 2007, Plaintiff filed a Supplemental Declaration in Support of Plaintiff's Opposition to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 79) ("Plaintiff's Surreply Declaration"), with attached exhibit A ("Plaintiff's Surreply Exh. A"). Oral argument was deemed unnecessary.

Based on the following, Defendants' motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

DISCUSSION

1. Summary Judgment

Summary judgment of a claim or defense will be granted when a moving party demonstrates that there are no genuine issues as to any material fact and that a moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a) and (b); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250-51 (1986); Rattner v. Netburn, 930 F.2d 204, 209 (2d Cir. 1991). The court is required to construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Tenenbaum v. Williams, 193 F.3d 58, 59 (2d Cir. 1999) (citing Anderson, supra, 477 U.S. at 255); Rattner, supra. The party moving for summary judgment bears the burden of establishing the nonexistence of any genuine issue of material fact and if there is any evidence in the record based upon any source from which a reasonable inference in the non-moving party's favor may be drawn, a moving party cannot obtain a summary judgment. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322; see Anderson,477 U.S. at 247-48 ("summary judgment will not lie if the dispute about a material fact is "genuine," that is, if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party").

"[W]here the nonmoving party will bear the burden of proof at trial on a dispositive issue, a summary judgment motion may properly be made in reliance solely on the 'pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file.' Such a motion, whether or not accompanied by affidavits, will be 'made and supported as provided in this rule [FRCP 56],' and Rule 56(e) therefore requires the non-moving party to go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the 'depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file,' designate 'specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Celotex, supra, 477 U.S. at 323-24 (1986) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56). Thus, "as to issues on which the non-moving party bears the burden of proof, the moving party may simply point out the absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case." Nora Beverages, Inc. v. Perrier Group of America, Inc., 164 F.3d 736, 742 (2d Cir. 1998). Once a party moving for summary judgment has made a properly supported showing as to the absence of any genuine issue as to all material facts, the nonmoving party must, to defeat summary judgment, come forward with evidence that would be sufficient to support a jury verdict in its favor. Goenaga v. March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation, 51 F.3d 14, 18 (2d Cir. 1995). "[F]actual issues created solely by an affidavit crafted to oppose a summary judgment motion are not 'genuine' issues for trial." Hayes v. New York City Dept. of Corrections, 84 F.3d 614, 619 (2d Cir. 1996). Rule 56 further provides that [w]hen a motion for summary judgment is made and supported as provided in this rule, an adverse party may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of the adverse party's pleading, but the adverse party's response, by affidavits or as otherwise provided in this rule, must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e).

Defendants are alleged to have violated Plaintiff's civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, pursuant to which an individual may seek damages against any person who, under color of state law, subjects such individual to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States. 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Section 1983, however, "'is not itself a source of a substantive rights,' but merely provides 'a method for vindication of federal rights elsewhere conferred.'" Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 271 (1994) (citing Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 144 n. 3 (1979)). Thus, "[t]he first step in any such claim is to identify the specific constitutional right allegedly infringed." Id. (citing Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 394 (1989); and Baker, 443 U.S. at 140). Here, Plaintiff alleges as his First Cause of Action violations of his right to religious freedom under the First Amendment, as determined by the court, and the RLUIPA, and a Fourteenth Amendment equal protection violation, and, as his Second Cause of Action, an Eighth Amendment excessive force claim, and a First Amendment retaliation claim. As discussed infra, summary judgment is GRANTED as to the claims asserted under the First Cause of Action, but GRANTED in part and DENIED in part as to the claims asserted under the Second Cause of Action.

2. Religious Freedom

Plaintiff's religious liberty claim is asserted under both the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause and § 3 of the RLUIPA. Preliminarily, the court observes that whether asserted under the First Amendment or the RLUIPA, a religious liberty claim requires the prisoner demonstrate "that the disputed conduct substantially burdens his sincerely held religious beliefs." Salahuddin v. Goord, 467 F.3d 263, 274-75 (2d Cir. 2006 (italics added) (citing RLUIPA, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a), and Ford v. McGinnis, 352 F.3d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 2003) (First Amendment Free Exercise Clause)).*fn3

As relevant, § 3 of the RLUIPA provides that the government shall not "impose a substantial burden" on the "religious exercise" of inmates in certain institutions unless the government demonstrates that the burden furthers a compelling governmental interest by the least restrictive means. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a); see Salahuddin, 467 F.3d at 273. "Religious exercise" is defined under the RLUIPA to include "any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief." 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-5(7)(A). "Section 3 applies if 'the substantial burden [on religious exercise] is imposed in a program or activity that received Federal financial assistance.'" Salahuddin, 467 F.3d at 273 n. 2 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(b)(1). "In the prison context, this section sweeps broadly as '[e]very State . . . accepts federal funding for its prisons.'" Id. (quoting Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709, 716 n. 4 (2005)).

Analyzing Plaintiff's claim under the First Amendment, "[t]he Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment is an 'unflinching pledge to allow our citizenry to explore . . . religious beliefs in accordance with the dictates of their conscience.'" Jackson v. Mann, 196 F.3d 316, 320 (2d Cir. 1999) (quoting Patrick v. LeFevre, 745 F.2d 153, 157 (2d Cir. 1984)). Because prisoners retain their right to religious freedom even when incarcerated, inmates are entitled to reasonable accommodation of their religious beliefs, consistent with needs of prisoner security, including "religious dietary beliefs, as 'prison officials must provide a prisoner a diet that is consistent with his religious scruples.'" Jackson, 196 F.3d at 320 (citing cases and quoting Bass v. Coughlin, 976 F.2d 98, 99 (2d Cir. 1992)).

Prisoners do not abandon their constitutional rights at the "jailhouse door," Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 576 (1979) (Marshall, J., dissenting), although "'[l]awful incarceration brings about the necessary withdrawal or limitation of many privileges and rights, a retraction justified by the considerations underlying our penal system.'" O'Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 348 (1987) (quoting Price v. Johnston, 334 U.S. 266, 285 (1948)). As such, "a challenged prison regulation is judged 'under a 'reasonableness' test less restrictive than that ordinarily applied': a regulation that burdens a protected right passes constitutional muster 'if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.'" Salahuddin, 467 F.3d at 274 (quoting O'Lone, 482 U.S. at 349 (additional internal quotation marks omitted)).

As stated, a religious liberty claim, whether asserted under the First Amendment or the RLUIPA, requires the prisoner demonstrate "that the disputed conduct substantially burdens his sincerely held religious beliefs." Salahuddin, 467 F.3d at 274-75 (italics added) (citing RLUIPA, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a), and Ford v. McGinnis, 352 F.3d 582, 587 (2d Cir. 2003) (discussing requirements of First Amendment Free Exercise Clause)). "The defendants [prison officials] then bear the relatively limited burden of identifying the legitimate penological interests that justify the impinging conduct," to shift the burden back to the inmate to "show that these articulated concerns were irrational." Salahuddin, 467 F.3d at 275 (citing Ford, 352 F.3d at 595) (internal quotations marks and brackets omitted) (bracketed material added).

A. Sincerity of Plaintiff's Religious Beliefs

As a threshold matter, Defendants argue that Plaintiff's alleged Jewish faith, including its kosher dietary requirements, is not a sincerely held belief, a threshold requirement for any religious freedom claim under either the First Amendment or the RLUIPA. Defendants' Memorandum at 3-5. According to Defendants, Plaintiff "did not practice any type of Judaism prior to his DOCS incarceration in 1992. On August 5, 2004, just a few months prior to the complained of actions, plaintiff switched his religious designation from Muslim to Jewish." Defendant's Memorandum at 4 (citing Dixon Declaration ¶ 4 and Exh. B). Thus, Plaintiff, as far as the prison officials at Attica were concerned, was "Jewish" for less than one month prior to the date of the earliest allegations in the Complaint. Id. Defendants also maintain that because DOCS kosher diet is generally considered as better than the meals provided to non-Jewish inmates in the regular prison diet, inmates have been known to convert to Judaism, by submitting forms to change, administratively, their religious preference at the correctional facility, to receive the more palatable meals. Id. (citing Dixon Declaration ¶ 10). Furthermore, Defendants urge the court to find that Plaintiff's religious beliefs are not sincerely held given that "[o]utside prison walls, it is very difficult for a civilian to convert to Judaism," in accordance with the requirements of Judaic law, and also in consideration of "plaintiff's extensive history of bringing frivolous lawsuits." Defendants' Memorandum at 4-5 (citing Rabbi Morgenstern Declaration ¶ 2). Plaintiff has not directly responded to this argument.*fn4

As discussed, Discussion, supra, at 10, the threshold determination to be made with regard to a religious liberty claim under either the First Amendment or the RLUIPA is whether the inmate plaintiff's religious beliefs are sincerely held. Salahuddin, 467 F.3d at 274-75 (RLUIPA); and Ford, 352 F.3d at 587 (First Amendment Free Exercise Clause). Whether an inmate's beliefs in the Jewish religion are sincerely held, however, is subjective and requires a determination of genuine issues of material fact. Specifically, in a similar case in which the plaintiff inmate alleged that the defendant prison officials' refusal to provide the inmate with a kosher diet violated the inmate's right to religious freedom, the Second Circuit held that summary judgment was precluded based on a genuine issue of material fact as to whether an inmate's beliefs in the Jewish religion were sincerely held, despite the prison's Jewish chaplain's statement that the inmate's alleged conversion to Judaism was not in accordance with Judaic law as required to be considered Jewish. Jackson, 196 F.3d at 320-21. Similarly, in the instant case, despite the timing of Plaintiff's "conversion" and Defendants' alleged interference with Plaintiff's kosher diet, the sincerity of Plaintiff's conversion to Judaism cannot be determined without weighing facts. As such, this aspect of Defendants' motion does not warrant summary judgment.

B. Manner in Which Kosher Meals are Provided

Plaintiff's allegations, under both the First Amendment and RLUIPA, that Defendants failed to provide Plaintiff with the proper utensils to open hermetically sealed kosher food packs, Complaint ¶ 10, or with hot water for his instant oatmeal and coffee, id., and permitted a non-Jewish inmate to prepare kosher food by opening cans of kosher tuna and sardines, and placing the contents into paper cups, Complaint ¶¶ 17-18, essentially challenge the manner in which Plaintiff's kosher meals are provided to him. Defendants maintain that even assuming, arguendo, such allegations are true, they fail to establish that Defendants substantially burdened Plaintiff's exercise ...


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