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Ward v. Rabideau

July 30, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Siragusa, J.



This is an action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in which Plaintiffs, all Jewish prison inmates at Groveland Correctional Facility ("Groveland"), contend that Defendants violated their rights under the First Amendment of the Constitution by failing to properly accommodate their religious needs. Now before the Court is Defendants' motion (Docket No. 103) for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, the application is denied.


The following facts are viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs. During the time relevant to this lawsuit, Plaintiffs, who are all Jewish, were inmates at Groveland. New York Department of Correctional Services ("DOCS") Directive 4202 (Jun. 7, 2004) makes the Division of Ministerial and Family Services, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Deputy Commissioner for Program Services, responsible for ensuring that all religious programs and practices are carried out in accordance with the established tenets and practices of the faiths as well as the policies and procedures of the Department. For religions not represented by certified Chaplains, the Department will seek advice on matters of religious doctrine, practice and tradition from recognized religious authorities in the outside community. The Director of the Division reports to the Deputy Commissioner and is responsible for its day-to-day activities and the involvement of facility chaplains and their approved programs. Facility chaplains are responsible for carrying out all aspects of the religious programs of their respective faiths, including supervision of religious volunteers. (DOCS Directive 4202 at 1.) The Directive also refers to Ministerial Program Coordinators ("MPC"), who are the liaisons between DOCS' Central Office and the chaplains, as well as other staff who serve the inmate population. (Id. at 2.) The Directive further provides that "[e]ach MPC serves as a liaison from Central Office to a particular faith group on a statewide basis. The MPC must be a member of that faith." (Id.)

During the time relevant to this lawsuit, Groveland had a Coordinating Chaplain, the Reverend Juan Carmona ("Carmona"), who was also a Protestant chaplain. (Carmona Dep. 188:2--3.) According to Directive 4202, the Coordinating Chaplain serves "as the principal adviser to the Superintendent on religious programs and practices and is responsible for planning the overall religious program, in collaboration with all other chaplains assigned to the facility, which satisfies the intent of this Directive." (DOCS Directive 4202 at 2.)

In 2003, Defendants eliminated the MPC position for the Jewish faith based on the recommendation of John Nuttall, Deputy Commissioner for Program Services ("Nutall"). (Ward Aff. ¶ 21 & Ex. J.) In addition, Groveland had no regular rabbi at the facility from 2003 through 2005. Thus, the responsibility for seeing to the needs of the Jewish inmates fell to Carmona and Deputy Superintendent for Programs at Groveland, who, during 2004, was Jose Melendez. Jewish religious dietary needs were overseen by Howard Dean, DOCS Director for Nutritional Services ("Dean"). None of these three defendants had specific knowledge or training with regard to the religious needs or dietary requirements for Jewish inmates.

Plaintiffs assert that as of February 2004, Carmona failed to allow for, schedule or otherwise provide for Jewish services at Groveland, and that, further, there were no religious study materials were then available. After Plaintiffs made requests for Jewish services, they were permitted, but Plaintiffs still had no assistance in obtaining the services of a rabbi or in obtaining religious materials, such as a Torah. However, in late 2004, purchase orders were issued to obtain Jewish religious materials for use in the inmates' lay services. Plaintiffs also complain that defendant William Gilbert searched the inmates participating in lay Jewish services as they entered the activity room, and would not permit them to retain some of their religious study materials, citing security concerns. (Ward Aff. ¶ 18.)

With regard to their dietary needs, Plaintiffs contend that they were served the cold alternative diet at Groveland, but on occasions were served the same non-kosher meals provided to the general inmate population. (Ward Aff. ¶¶ 23-34.) Plaintiffs also state that Defendants "on numerous occasions [failed] to provide for adequate, and edible, proper kosher meals or allow for proper observances for Purim, Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as set forth in the Verified Complaint." (Ward Aff. ¶ 23.) On a number of occasions, Plaintiffs state that the cold alternative diet meal was not kosher, or was not prepared according to kosher requirements, or both. Additionally, Plaintiffs complain that at times the meals were missing food, or had inedible frozen or spoiled items, or lacked proper utensils. Moreover, Plaintiffs maintain that when they refused to eat the cold alternative diet meals for what they claim were religious reasons, they were removed from that meal plan, leaving them with no kosher meal alternative. Plaintiffs filed complaints with Defendants, including Dean, but none of their complaints was satisfactorily resolved. (Ward Aff. ¶ 28.)

Finally, Plaintiffs also state that they were the subjects of harassment and discriminatory remarks by Groveland staff, including Defendants, as a result of their religious-based objections and repeated grievances. (Compl. ¶¶ 18-22.) They also contend that Defendants segregated them at meal times by compelling them to sit at a table designated as "Jewish Inmates Only," and that Defendants threatened disciplinary sanctions if they refused to sit there. (Compl. ¶ 29.) In contrast, Plaintiffs state that no other religious group received similar treatment.


Summary Judgment

The standard for granting summary judgment is well established. Summary judgment may not be granted unless "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). A party seeking summary judgment bears the burden of establishing that no genuine issue of material fact exists. See, Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970). "[T]he movant must make a prima facie showing that the standard for obtaining summary judgment has been satisfied." 11 MOORE'S FEDERAL PRACTICE, § 56.11[1][a] (Matthew Bender 3d ed.). "In moving for summary judgment against a party who will bear the ultimate burden of proof at trial, the movant may satisfy this burden by pointing to an absence of evidence to support an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim." Gummo v. Village of Depew, 75 F.3d 98, 107 (2d Cir. 1996) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986).

The burden then shifts to the non-moving party to demonstrate "specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986). To do this, the non-moving party must present evidence sufficient to support a jury verdict in its favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249; see also, Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e) ("When a motion for summary judgment is made and supported as provided in this rule, and 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."). Summary judgment is appropriate only where, "after drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the party against whom summary judgment is sought, no reasonable trier of fact could find in favor of the non-moving party." Leon v. Murphy, 988 F.2d 303, 308 (2d Cir.1993). The parties may only carry their respective burdens by producing evidentiary proof in admissible form. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). The underlying facts contained in affidavits, attached exhibits, and depositions, must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655, 82 S.Ct. 993, 8 L.Ed. 2d 176 (1962).

42 U.S.C. § 1983

Plaintiffs are suing in this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and the legal principles applicable to such claims are well settled:

In order to establish individual liability under § 1983, a plaintiff must show

(a) that the defendant is a "person" acting "under the color of state law," and

(b) that the defendant caused the plaintiff to be deprived of a federal right. See, e.g., Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167(1961). Additionally, "[i]n this Circuit personal involvement of defendants in alleged constitutional deprivations is a prerequisite to an award of damages under § 1983." McKinnon v. Patterson, 568 F.2d 930, 934 (2d Cir.1977).

An individual cannot be held liable for damages under § 1983 "merely because he held a high position of authority," but can be held liable if he was personally involved in the alleged deprivation. See Black v. Coughlin, 76 F.3d 72, 74 (2d Cir.1996). Personal involvement can be shown by: evidence that:

(1) the defendant participated directly in the alleged constitutional violation, (2) the defendant, after being informed of the violation through a report or appeal, failed to remedy the wrong, (3) the defendant created a policy or custom under which unconstitutional practices occurred, or allowed the continuance of such a policy or custom, (4) the defendant was grossly negligent in supervising subordinates who committed the wrongful acts, or (5) the defendant exhibited deliberate indifference ... by failing to act on information indicating that unconstitutional acts were occurring. See Colon v. Coughlin, 58 F.3d 865, 873 (2d Cir.1995).

Back v. Hastings On Hudson Union Free School Dist., 365 F.3d 107, 122, 127 (2d Cir. 2004).

First Amendment Free Exercise Clause

The Supreme Court evaluates a prison's infringement on a prisoner's free exercise right using four factors: when a prison regulation impinges on inmates' constitutional rights, the regulation is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.

In our view, such a standard is necessary if "prison administrators., and not the courts, [are] to make the difficult judgments concerning institutional operations." Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners' Union, 433 U.S., at 128. Subjecting the day-to-day judgments of prison officials to an inflexible strict scrutiny analysis would seriously hamper their ability to anticipate security problems and to adopt innovative solutions to the intractable problems of prison administration. The rule would also distort the decisionmaking process, for every administrative judgment would be subject to the possibility that some court somewhere would conclude that it had a less restrictive way of solving the problem at hand. Courts inevitably would become the primary arbiters of what constitutes the best solution to every administrative problem, thereby "unnecessarily perpetuat[ing] the involvement of the federal courts in affairs of prison administration." Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S., at 407.

As our opinions in Pell, Bell, and Jones show, several factors are relevant in determining the reasonableness of the regulation at issue. First, there must be a "valid, rational connection" between the prison regulation and the legitimate governmental interest put forward to justify it. Block v. Rutherford, supra, at 586. Thus, a regulation cannot be sustained where the logical connection between the regulation and the asserted goal is so remote as to render the policy arbitrary or irrational. Moreover, the governmental objective must be a legitimate and neutral one. We have found it important to inquire whether prison regulations restricting inmates' First Amendment rights operated in a neutral fashion, without regard to the content of the expression. See Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S., at 828; Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S., at 551.

A second factor relevant in determining the reasonableness of a prison restriction, as Pell shows, is whether there are alternative means of exercising the right that remain open to prison inmates. Where "other avenues" remain available for the exercise of the asserted right, see Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners' Union, supra, at 131, courts should be particularly conscious of the "measure of judicial deference owed to corrections officials . . . in gauging the validity of the regulation." Pell v. Procunier, supra, at 827.

A third consideration is the impact accommodation of the asserted constitutional right will have on guards and other inmates, and on the allocation of prison resources generally. In the necessarily closed environment of the correctional institution, few changes will have no ramifications on the liberty of others or on the use of the prison's limited resources for preserving institutional order. When accommodation of an asserted right will have a significant "ripple effect" on fellow inmates or on prison staff, courts should be particularly deferential to the informed discretion of corrections officials. Cf. Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners' Union, supra, at 132-133.

Finally, the absence of ready alternatives is evidence of the reasonableness of a prison regulation. See Block v. Rutherford, 468 U.S., at 587. By the same token, the existence of obvious, easy alternatives may be evidence that the regulation is not reasonable, but is an "exaggerated response" to prison concerns. This is not a "least restrictive alternative" test: prison officials do not have to set up and then shoot down every conceivable alternative method of accommodating the claimant's constitutional complaint. See ibid. But if an inmate claimant can point to an alternative that fully accommodates the prisoner's rights at de minimis cost to valid penological interests, a court may consider that as evidence that the regulation does not satisfy the reasonable relationship standard.

Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 90-91 (1987).


Personal Involvement of Nuttall and Dean

Defendants' first argument is that Plaintiffs have failed to show that either Nuttall or Dean was directly responsible for the actions or omissions alleged in the complaint. (Def.s' Mem. of Law 6.) Nuttall argues that he is not personally involved in the investigation of inmate complaints, or hiring of rabbis for any DOCS facility. Furthermore, Nuttall maintains that he would not typically see inmate letters about conditions at a particular facility, since those tasks are handled by Mark Leonard, Director of Ministerial Services, who prepares responses for Nuttall's signature. (Nuttall Dep. 24-25, 28, 30-32.) As for Dean, he contends that it is the regional coordinators, not him, who investigate complaints about specific facilities. (Dean Dep. 34, 61.)

Plaintiffs counter that the June 22, 2004, letter (Ward Aff. Ex. J) which Kenneth Ward ("Ward") sent to Nuttall outlined in detail the issues regarding the kosher food and the lack of a rabbi and Jewish religious materials. (Ward Aff. ¶ 35 & Ex. J.) Additionally, they point out that Nuttall testified at his deposition that the Commissioner made the decision to eliminate the MPC for Jewish inmates at Groveland on his recommendation. (Nuttall Dep. 12.) On this point, Plaintiffs contend that the lack of a Jewish MPC "contributed to, and compounded, Defendants' actions which violated Plaintiffs' exercise of their religion." (Pl.'s Mem. of Law 6.) With regard to Dean, Plaintiffs assert that Ward's June 22, 2004, letter*fn1 was also sent to Dean and that not only did Dean respond to the letter, "he also personally assured [Ward] that the Cold Alternative Diet was sufficient." (Pl.'s Mem. of Law 6; Ward Aff. ¶ 36 & Ex. K.)

Turning first to Dean, his response letter reads in pertinent part as follows: "The Regional Coordinator investigated your concerns. It was determined that Groveland Correctional Facility is following all procedures concerning your cold alterative diet. The Offices of Ministerial Services and Nutritional Services have approved the policy and procedure for this diet program." (Howard Dean letter to Kenneth Ward, Aug. 9, 2004, Ward Aff. Ex. K, at 1.)

Generally, the receipt of a letter is insufficient to establish personal involvement under § 1983. See, e.g., Petty v. Goord, No. 00 Civ. 803 (MBM), 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21197, 2002 WL 31458240 at *8 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 4, 2002) (Mukasey, J.) ("[C]courts in this Circuit, applying the principles laid out in Colon [v. Coughlin, 58 F.3d 865 (2d Cir. 1995)], have agreed that receiving a letter from an inmate does not constitute sufficient personal involvement to generate supervisory liability."); accord, Barclay v. Poland, No. 03CV6585CJS (FE), 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1582, 2006 WL 145552 (W.D.N.Y. Jan. 19, 2006) (Siragusa, J.). Instead, courts typically require something more before finding personal involvement. See, e.g., Rivera v. Pataki, No. 04 Civ. 1286(MBM), 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2747, 2005 WL 407710 at *23 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 7, 2005) (Mukasey, J.) (quoting Johnson v. Wright, 234 F. Supp. 2d 352, 363-64 (S.D.N.Y.2002)) ("[P]ersonal involvement will be found.where a supervisory official receives and acts on a prisoner's grievance or otherwise reviews and responds to a prisoner's complaint.") However, there is no per se rule in this regard. See, Suarez v. Keiser, No. 04-CV-6362 CJS, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11986, 2006 WL 543725 at *6 (W.D.N.Y. Mar. 3, 2006) ("Such situations must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. That is, the details of an inmate's letter might trigger a particular supervisor's duty to investigate or to take some action, or it might not.")

In this case, the Court determines that Plaintiffs' letter, a copy of which was evidently sent to Dean, caused him to pursue an investigation through the regional coordinator. Ward's letter detailed his complaint about the cold alternative diet and petitioned for "a nutritionally adequate alternative meal regimen consist[e]nt with [his] religious beliefs, which should include at least one hot meal per day." (Kenneth Ward letter to Director of Ministerial and Family Services, Jul. 20, 2004, Ward Aff. Ex. K at 1 (emphasis in original).) In this regard, Dean testified at a deposition that,

I have regional coordinators that I supervise directly, that currently oversee or supervise facilities, and they are kind of my eyes, as I don't go to every facility in the state anymore physically. So these people do my footwork for me. And then they respond back with any problems, and I relate the problems to the executive at the facility to see if corrective action needs to be taken (Dean Dep. 34)....

We have statewide menus that are developed in my office with a team of food service people and nutritionists. And that statewide menu is utilized in all 70 ...

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