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Prince Pilgrim v. New York State Department of Correctional Services; Brian Fischer

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT NORTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK


September 1, 2011

PRINCE PILGRIM, PLAINTIFF,
v.
NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONAL SERVICES; BRIAN FISCHER, COMMISSIONER OF NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONAL SERVICES, DEFENDANTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Randolph F. Treece United States Magistrate Judge

REPORT-RECOMMENDATION and ORDER

Prince Pilgrim, a New York state prison inmate proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, commenced this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"). Dkt. No. 1, Compl. On April 20, 2009, Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 36), which Plaintiff opposed (Dkt. No. 47). On March 18, 2010, this Court issued a Report and Recommendation granting Defendants' Motion in part and denying it in part. Dkt. No. 50. Over objections by both party opponents (Dkt. Nos. 55 & 56), on September 17, 2010, the Honorable Gary L. Sharpe, United States District Judge, adopted the Report and Recommendation in its entirety. Dkt. No. 57, Order. Pursuant to this Order, the claims against Defendant Dale Artus, the Superintendent of Clinton Correctional Facility, were dismissed for lack of personal involvement, and, alternatively, as being without merit. See Dkt. No. 50 at pp. 9-18. Judge Sharpe found, however, that a question of fact existed as to whether Plaintiff's claim that his rights under the RLUIPA and First Amendment were violated. In light of Plaintiff's pro se status, and in the interest of judicial economy, the New York State Department of Correctional Services ("DOCS")*fn1 and DOCS Commissioner Brian Fischer were substituted as proper Defendants solely to Plaintiff's RLUIPA and First Amendment claims. Id. at pp. 26-27. Consideration of the remedy prescribed by the RLUIPA,*fn2 the Eleventh Amendment, and the affirmative defense of qualified immunity demanded that Plaintiff's claims against these Defendants be limited to non-monetary equitable relief, only. See id. at pp. 27-31.

Defendants now bring a Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). Dkt. No. 69. Plaintiff opposes the Motion. Dkt. No. 73. For the reasons that follow, we recommend that Defendants' Motion be granted and Plaintiff's Complaint be dismissed in its entirety.

I. BACKGROUND

For a complete recitation of the factual background of this case, we refer to this Court's Report and Recommendation addressing former Defendant Artus' Motion for Summary Judgment. See Dkt. No. 50. In short, Plaintiff claims that while he was an inmate at Clinton Correctional Facility, his constitutional and statutory rights were violated, including the right to freely exercise his religion. Plaintiff, a registered Nation of Islam ("NOI") member,*fn3 complains that misbehavior reports were issued against him because, undisputably, Plaintiff was wearing his hair in dreadlocks in violation of a DOCS' policy prohibiting this hairstyle except for members of the Rastafarian faith. The crux of Plaintiff's Complaint, as it currently stands, is that the discipline he received was unlawful under RLUIPA and the First Amendment because DOCS Directive 4914 regarding acceptable inmate hair styles violates his right to freely exercise his religion.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

"A case is properly dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) when the district court lacks the statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate it." Makarova v. United States, 201 F.3d 110, 113 (2d Cir. 2000) (citing FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(1)). Federal courts are "duty-bound . . . to address the issue of subject matter jurisdiction at the outset." Filetech S.A. v. France Telecom S.A., 157 F.3d 922, 929 (2d Cir. 1998). In contemplating a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), the Court must "accept as true all material factual allegations in the complaint[,]" though "argumentative inferences favorable to the party asserting jurisdiction should not be drawn." Atl. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Balfour MacLaine Int'l Ltd., 968 F.2d 196, 198 (2d Cir. 1992) (citing Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974) & Norton v. Larney, 266 U.S. 511, 515 (1925)). "In resolving the question of jurisdiction, the district court can refer to evidence outside the pleadings and the plaintiff asserting subject matter jurisdiction has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that [jurisdiction] exists." Luckett v. Bure, 290 F.3d 493, 496-97 (2d Cir. 2002) (citations omitted); see also Aurecchione v. Schoolman Transp. Sys., Inc., 426 F.3d 635, 638 (2d Cir. 2005). Furthermore, because Plaintiff brings this action pro se, his submissions should be held "to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 9 (1980) (per curium) (quoting Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972)).

B. Mootness

Defendants contend that, as a result of complaints made by non-Rastafarian inmates who wished to maintain dreadlock hairstyles, such as Plaintiff, and "guidance from certain judicial decisions which raised questions about whether the prohibition against non-Rastafarian inmates maintaining dreadlocks might violate RLUIPA or the First Amendment," on September 2, 2010, DOCS issued a new version of Directive 4914 which "supersedes and replaces former Directive 4914." Dkt. No. 69-3, Defs.' Mem. of Law, at pp. 2-3 (citing, inter alia, Amaker v. Goord, 2007 WL 4560596 (W.D.N.Y. Mar. 9, 2007) & Dkt. No. 69-1, Brian Fischer Decl., dated Dec. 23, 2010, at ¶ 6). Diverging from the old Directive, the new Directive expressly states that "[t]he dreadlocked hairstyle is allowed," and makes no limitation to specific religious designations. Dkt. No. 69-2, Ex. C, New Directive No. 4914, dated Sept. 2, 2010, at III(B)(2). Therefore, as Defendants argue, Plaintiff's claims for prospective equitable relief under the First Amendment and RLUIPA are moot given the adoption of a new version of Directive 4914. We agree.

Article III, Section 2 of the United States Constitution limits the subject matter of the federal courts to issues which present an actual "case or controversy." Spencer v. Kemna, 523 U.S. 1, 7 (1998); Linares v. Barkley, 2010 WL 4962998, at *2 (N.D.N.Y. Oct. 8, 2010). A case is moot "when the issues presented are no longer live or the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome." City of Erie v. Pap's A.M., 529 U.S. 277, 287 (2000) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); Lavin v. United States, 299 F.3d 123, 128 (2d Cir. 2002). "The hallmark of a moot case or controversy is that the relief sought can no longer be given or is no longer needed." Martin-Trigona v. Shiff, 702 F.2d 380, 386 (2d Cir. 1983); see also Prins v. Coughlin, 76 F.3d 504, 506 (2d Cir. 1996) ("A case is deemed moot where the problem sought to be remedied has ceased, and where there is no reasonable expectation that the wrong will be repeated.") (internal citation omitted).

If a court determines an action is moot, it may still entertain such action if it is one that is "capable of repetition, yet evading review." Olmstead v. L.C. ex rel. Zimring, 527 U.S. 581, 594 n.6 (1999). An otherwise moot claim is "capable of repetition" if 1) the duration of the challenged condition was too limited in duration to permit litigation prior to its cessation, and 2) if there is a reasonable expectation that the plaintiff will be subject to the same action again. Weinstein v. Bradford, 423 U.S. 147, 149 (1975). A federal court may also entertain a claim if collateral consequences would ensue from denial of the relief sought on mootness grounds. Werber v. United States, 149 F.3d 172, 176 (2d Cir. 1998).

Here, Defendants, on their own accord, reconsidered and effected a change in their prison regulations and rules regarding acceptable inmate hairstyles. This change to Directive 4914 would seemingly grant Plaintiff exactly the relief he seeks -- the ability to wear his hair in dreadlocks as his personal dogma demands, without being subject to disciplinary action. However, a defendant's voluntary cessation of the contested policy must be scrutinized carefully by the courts. See Smith v. New York State Dep't. of Corr. Servs., 2010 WL 1192057, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 1, 2010) (citing New York State Nat'l Org. for Women v. Terry, 159 F.3d 86, 91-92 (2d Cir. 1998)).

In Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services, Inc., the Supreme Court stated that a defendant's voluntary cessation of a challenged practice may not necessarily deprive a federal court of its power to determine the legality of the practice, and that the "standard . . . announced for determining whether a case has been mooted by the defendant's voluntary conduct is stringent[.]" 528 U.S. 167, 189 (2000). "[A] party 'claiming that its voluntary compliance moots a case bears the formidable burden of showing that it is absolutely clear the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.'" Seidemann v. Bowen, 499 F.3d 119, 128-29 (2d Cir. 2007) (quoting Laidlaw, 528 U.S. at 190). However, "mere speculation that the parties will be involved in a dispute over the same issue does not rise to the level of a reasonable expectation or demonstrated probability of recurrence." Van Wie v. Pataki, 267 F.3d 109, 115 (2d Cir. 2001) (internal quotation omitted).

Defendants have met their heavy burden of demonstrating that DOCS's practice of allowing only members of certain religious sects, such as those of the Rastafarian faith, to maintain dreadlock hairstyles, and punishing noncompliance with their Directive, has ceased, and there is no reasonable probability that such a practice will recur. The voluntary change occurred in the form of a new, superceding Directive, and as "[t]his change in policy is embodied in an official prison document . . . it is absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur." Tawwab v. Metz, 554 F.2d 22, 24 (2d Cir. 1977) (internal quotation omitted). Additionally, there is authority stating that a government entity's representation that their complained-about conduct has been discontinued is entitled to some deference in determining whether a suit seeking prospective equitable relief against that conduct has been mooted. Lamar Adver. of Penn, LLC v. Town of Orchard Park, New York, 356 F.3d 365, 376-77 (2d Cir. 2004). Defendants represent that all inmates and correctional services staff have been notified of the change in Directive 4914, and prior Central Office Review Committee ("CORC") decisions interpreting and enforcing the old Directive are "no longer valid." Fischer Decl. at ¶ 13. Defendants further enounce that DOCS has no intention of reinstating the former Directive, and that Plaintiff, specifically, is able under the new Directive to maintain his dreadlocks without the risk of being disciplined, "regardless of his nonRastafarian religious designation." Id. at ¶¶ 14-15. As it seems that Defendants utilized the proper procedures and process to revise their regulation on inmate hairstyles, there is no reason to impute DOCS with the intention to raise the old Directive from the dead. See Granite State Outdoor Adver., Inc. v. Town of Orange, Connecticut, 303 F.3d 450, 451-52 (2d Cir. 2002).

Despite the fact that, as of September 2, 2010, he has been able to maintain his dreadlocks without the risk of being disciplined by correction officers, Plaintiff remains unsatisfied. In his Response in Opposition to Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, Plaintiff argues Defendants' voluntary cessation of the complained-about practice does not moot his request for equitable relief because the new Directive remains "extreme[ly] vague" and does not include the explicit representation that dreadlocks are allowed "regardless of religious designation." See Dkt. No. 73, Pl. Resp. This Court is not persuaded by that argument. Prior to the changes, Directive 4914 and CORC decisions interpreting the old Directive expressly provided that only inmates of the Rastafarian faith could wear their hair in dreadlocks. See Fischer Decl. at ¶ 4 (citing Dkt. No. 69-2, Exs. A, Former Directive No. 4914 & B, CORC Decisions). That limitation has been removed and now the Directive states, quite plainly, that "[t]he dreadlock hairstyle is allowed." See Dkt. No. 69-2, Ex. C, New Directive No. 4914. This declaration is unambiguous and direct and makes it "absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur." United States v. Concentrated Phosphate Export Assn., 393 U.S. 199, 203 (1968). While Plaintiff may prefer some express recognition that members of the NOI are allowed to wear dreadlocks, the effect of the new Directive 4914 grants Plaintiff precisely the change he seeks.*fn4

Therefore, because there is no reasonable expectation that Plaintiff will be subject to discipline for maintaining a dreadlock hairstyle regardless of his non-Rastafarian faith due to the new Directive, Plaintiff's claims for equitable relief,*fn5 in their entirety, are moot. As previously noted, Plaintiff's relief is limited to non-monetary equitable relief only, pursuant to Judge Sharpe's decision and the law of the case doctrine.*fn6 Accordingly, we recommend Plaintiff's complaint be dismissed in its entirety for want of subject matter jurisdiction.

III. CONCLUSION

For the reasons stated herein, it is hereby RECOMMENDED, that Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Dkt. No. 69) be GRANTED and Plaintiff's Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) be DISMISSED; and it is further

ORDERED, that the Clerk of the Court serve a copy of this Report-Recommendation and Order upon the parties to this action.

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), the parties have fourteen (14) days within which to file written objections to the foregoing report. Such objections shall be filed with the Clerk of the Court. FAILURE TO OBJECT TO THIS REPORT WITHIN FOURTEEN (14) DAYS WILL PRECLUDE APPELLATE REVIEW. Roldan v. Racette, 984 F.2d 85, 89 (2d Cir. 1993) (citing Small v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 892 F.2d 15 (2d Cir. 1989)); see also FED. R. CIV. P. 72, 6(a).


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