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Robinson v. City of New York

March 5, 2008

JAMES ROBINSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE CITY OF NEW YORK ET AL., DEFENDANTS.
ROBERT PARRIS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE CITY OF NEW YORK ET AL., DEFENDANTS.
JEFFERY DAVIDSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CORRECTION OFFICER MASIEY ET AL. DEFENDANTS.
VINCENT MCALLISTER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE CITY OF NEW YORK ET AL., DEFENDANTS.
KEITH MCFADDEN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE CITY OF NEW YORK ET AL. DEFENDANTS.
HARRY WILSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE CITY OF NEW YORK ET AL.. DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael H. Dolinger, U.S. Magistrate Judge

REPORT & RECOMMENDATION

TO THE HONORABLE GERARD E. LYNCH, U.S.D.J.

In this Report and Recommendation we address dismissal motions in six lawsuits filed in 2005 and 2006 by inmates in the Anna M. Kross Center ("AMKC") of the Rikers Island prison facility. The plaintiffs -- James Robinson, Robert Parris, Jeffery Davidson, Vincent McAllister, Keith McFadden and Harry Wilson -- have each sued a group of AMKC correctional officers who work in the prison commissary. They have also named as defendants both Brian Riordan, who is the Warden of the AMKC, and Martin Horn, who is the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction ("DOC"). In addition, all but one of the plaintiffs -- the exception being Jeffery Davidson -- have named the City of New York as a defendant.

The complaints of all plaintiffs but Davidson are almost identically worded, and his original complaint substantially parallels those of his fellow inmates. Each of the plaintiffs asserts claims against the City and the DOC officials and employees for the denial of his First and Fourteenth Amendment right, as an observant Muslim, to practice his religion. The alleged violation that is common to all of the complaints is the failure of the defendants to provide meals that conform to the requirements of the plaintiffs' Muslim faith.

Defendants have filed parallel motions in each case, seeking, under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), the dismissal of the complaints in their entirety. In support of each of those motions, they press some or all of five grounds: (1) that the complaint fails to state a claim because the plaintiff's allegations demonstrate that he has not exhausted his prison remedies, as required by 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a); (2) that the plaintiff lacks standing to assert one of his claims, which is based on the prison's alleged sale of nonHalal food at its commissary; (3) that his claims against the individual defendants should be dismissed because he fails adequately to allege the defendants' personal participation in the constitutional torts that he asserts; (4) that the claims against these defendants should be dismissed because, based on the allegations of the complaint, the individual defendants are immune from liability; and (5) that the complaint fails to state a claim insofar as it targets certain practices at the prison commissary, because its allegations do not plead a violation of plaintiff's rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

A. Plaintiffs' Claims

These lawsuits are among a group of approximately twenty cases filed more or less contemporaneously by current or former Muslim inmates at the Rikers Island prison facilities, all of whom complain about the handling of food and related items at the prison dining halls. All allege that the New York City Department of Correction has failed to provide them with meals that comply with the Halal requirements of their faith, and has thereby denied them the free exercise of their religion, in violation of their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

These lawsuits were originally filed pro se, and hence their factual allegations lack some degree of precision, although, fairly construed, it is apparent that the plaintiffs are all complaining of essentially the same practices. As reflected in the original and amended complaints in these six cases, plaintiffs allege that prison personnel have failed to provide proper Halal meals to Muslim inmates -- themselves included -- in a variety of ways.

These include the stacking and washing together of Halal and nonHalal trays, the use of soap in the washing process that contains pork by-products, the use of pork-based ingredients in the cooking process, the failure to cook Halal meats thoroughly, the failure to separate the Halal from the non-Halal utensils, food pans and carts, and the failure to identify the Halal utensils and other kitchen items.*fn1 (See Robinson Am. Compl. at pp. 5-a to 5-d, 5-D1, 5-f to 5-h; Parris Am. Compl. at fifth page to ninth page, eleventh page, twelfth page; Davidson Am. Compl. at fifth page; McAllister Am. Compl. at fifth to eighth pages, tenth to twelfth pages; McFadden Am. Compl. at fifth to eighth pages, tenth to twelfth pages; Wilson Compl. at pp. 3-A to 3-D, 3-F to 3-H). They also target the manner in which food items are sold at the AMKC commissary, alleging that the defendant corrections officers sell both Halal and non-Halal foods but fail to identify which are Halal, a practice that ultimately results in the contamination of the Halal food trays at the prison dining facilities. (See Robinson Am. Compl. at pp. 5-a to 5-c, 5-D1, 5-h, 6; Parris Am. Compl. at fifth page to seventh page, twelfth page, p. 6(a); Davidson Compl. at ¶ II(D); Davidson Am. Compl. at ¶ II(D) & fifth page; McAllister Am. Compl. at fifth to tenth pages, twelfth page; McFadden Compl. at fifth to tenth pages, twelfth page; Wilson Compl. at ¶ II(D), pp. 3-A to 3-F, p. 3-H).

Each plaintiff further states that he filed grievances with the AMKC and that there was no response to those grievances. (Robinson Am. Compl. at p. 3; Parris Am. Compl. at p. 3; Davidson Compl. ¶¶ IV(E) & (F); McAllister Am. Compl. at third page; McFadden Am. Compl. at third page; Wilson Compl. at pp. 3, 4, 5). The plaintiffs also allege that the Warden and the Commissioner were notified of these problems, and that they themselves notified both of these officials. (Robinson Am. Compl. at pp. 5-f, 5-I; Parris Am. Compl. at eighth page, thirteenth page, pp. 6(a) & 7(a); Davidson Compl. ¶¶ IV(F)(3), (G), (I); McAllister Am. Compl. at fifth, tenth and thirteenth pages; McFadden Am. Compl. at fifth, tenth and thirteenth pages; Wilson Compl. at pp. 3-A, 3-F, 3-I, 4-5 & Exs.).

We read these plaintiffs' allegations liberally in deference to their pro se status, e.g., Pabon v. Wright, 459 F.3d 241, 248 (2d Cir. 2006); Hernandez v. Coughlin, 18 F.3d 133, 136 (2d Cir. 1994), as well as because defendants seek dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6). E.g., Achtman v. Kirby, McInerney & Squire, LLC, 464 F.3d 328, 337 (2d Cir. 2006). We infer that, except where plaintiffs make additional allegations, they are asserting the same claims and in substance making the same allegations, as the pro se plaintiffs in the parallel cases. Moreover, we read their pleadings in light of the specific allegations made by the one plaintiff among this group who subsequently obtained representation by pro bono counsel -- a set of allegations that are described in Wesley v. Muhammad, 2008 WL 123812 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 10, 2008).

As explained in Wesley, the claims in these cases concern two different sets of practices that are said to violate the rights of Muslim inmates. One set concerns the alleged failure of the prison facilities to adhere to Islamic religious tenets in food preparation and cleanup in the prison dining facilities. These failings, which assertedly also violated a DOC directive, involved the stacking and washing together of trays that are used to serve Halal and non-Halal meals, thereby contaminating the trays reserved for Halal food*fn2 ; the washing of trays with soap that contains pork by-products; use of cooking ingredients with pork by-products; and the failure to cook Halal meats thoroughly, as required by Halal rules. Id. at *1, 11. See also Randolph v. City of New York Dep't of Correction, 2007 WL 26602082, *2 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 7, 2007). The other principal violation, according to Wesley, is that the prison commissaries sell both Halal and non-Halal food products without identifying which products are in fact non-Halal, a failing that, according to Wesley, leads to Muslim inmates unknowingly purchasing non-Halal food products at the commissary and then placing those products on the dining hall food trays that are reserved for Halal foods, thereby contaminating the trays for those inmates and for all other observant inmates who subsequently use the same trays. Wesley, 2007 WL 123812 at *1, 5.

As for the role of the defendants named in these six lawsuits, plaintiffs allege that the corrections officers all work at the prison commissary and are thus responsible for the sale of nonHalal food items without identification of their non-Halal status, thus resulting in food tray contamination. (See Robinson Am. Compl. at pp. 5-a, 5-d to 5-f, 5-i; Parris Am. Compl. at ninth to tenth pages, twelfth page; Davidson Compl. ¶ II(D); McAllister Am. Compl. at fifth page, eight to ninth pages, thirteenth page; McFadden Am. Compl. at fifth page, eighth to ninth pages, thirteenth page; Wilson Compl. at pp. 3, 3-B, 3-D to 3-F, 3-I). They further assert that the Commissioner and the Warden have been repeatedly notified of the cited failures to provide proper Halal meals and the sale of unidentified non-Halal foods at the commissary, and that they have failed to act to correct these problems. (See Robinson Am. Compl. at pp. 5-a, 5-f, 5-i; Parris Am. Compl. at p. 5-a, eighth page, thirteenth page; Davidson Compl. ¶¶ IV(F)(3), (G)-(I); McAllister Am. Compl. at fifth page, thirteenth page; McFadden Am. Compl. at fifth page, thirteenth page; Wilson Compl. at pp. 3-A, 3-F, 3-I).

As reflected in the reports and recommendations we issued in three of the parallel cases, the allegations in these six cases concerning the individual defendants' personal involvement track those found in the previously decided cases. The correction officers named as defendants in those other cases were alleged to have been assigned to work at the prison commissary, and the supervisory defendants -- in those cases the DOC Commissioner and the Warden of the AMKC -- were named because they had been notified of the problems alluded to in those parallel cases and had allegedly failed to respond or deal with those problems. See, e.g., ...


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