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Jesse Washington v. J. Brown

August 23, 2012

JESSE WASHINGTON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
J. BROWN, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



FINDINGS & RECOMMENDATIONS

Plaintiff is a state prisoner proceeding pro se with a civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983. This matter is before the court on defendants' renewed motion for judgment on the pleadings.*fn1 Defendants seek judgment on the pleadings on plaintiff's claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) on the ground that money damages are unavailable under RLUIPA against defendants in either their official or their individual capacities.

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide that, "[a]fter the pleadings are closed -- but early enough not to delay the trial -- a party may move for judgment on the pleadings." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c). In considering a motion for judgment on the pleadings, the court reviews the pleadings only, and the allegations of the non-moving party are accepted as true. Hal Roach Studios v. Richard Feiner, 883 F.2d 1429, 1436 (9th Cir. 1989).

Plaintiff is proceeding on claims raised in his second amended complaint, including the RLUIPA claims that are the subject of motion at bar. The second amended complaint contains the following allegations relevant to the instant motion, which were previously set forth in this court's July 12, 2010 findings and recommendations on a motion for summary judgment filed by defendants Brewer, Kissinger, and Mohamed.

Prior to the start of Ramadan on October 15, 2004, plaintiff and several other inmates petitioned defendants Brewer and Kissinger to provide them with the sign-up sheet for Ramadan and asked these defendants to notify the prison kitchen staff that they intended to participate in the Ramadan fast. (Sec. Am. Compl. (SAC) at 10-11.) In addition, plaintiff sent several inmate requests to defendant Mohamed, the assigned Muslim Imam Representative for the prison, informing him that plaintiff and several other Muslim inmates intended to fast for Ramadan. (Id. at 11.) However, according to plaintiff, defendants Brewer, Kissinger, and Mohamed intentionally failed to ensure that plaintiff and his fellow Muslim inmates were placed on the Ramadan fast list and allowed to participate in the religious observance. (Id. at 12-13.) Moreover, plaintiff alleges that defendants Brewer and Mohamed denied him and other Muslim inmates the opportunity to make-up the seventeen days of Ramadan fasting that they had missed. (Id. at 13-14.)

Plaintiff also alleges that on December 19, 2004, defendants Brown and Madrigal were distributing breakfast food trays in administrative segregation. (Id. at 3.) They told plaintiff that they had spit in his food. (Id. at 3B.) . . . .

Later, when defendants Brown and Madrigal returned to serve the evening meals, they insinuated that they had contaminated plaintiff's food again. (Id. at 7.) . . . .

Plaintiff alleges that the contamination of his food by prison officials was not an isolated event. According to plaintiff, just two months earlier on October 3, 2004, defendant Kissinger also tampered with plaintiff's food. (Id. at 11.) In response to that incident, plaintiff initiated a five-day hunger strike to protest his treatment. (Id.)

Based on the above allegations, plaintiff claims that defendants Brewer, Kissinger, and Mohamed violated his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA") and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by intentionally denying him the opportunity to participate in the Ramadan fast and by refusing to provide him with obligatory make-up Ramadan food trays. (Id. at 15-16.)

Findings and Recommendations filed July 12, 2010 (Doc. No. 119), at 1-3. Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages, as well as declaratory relief and any other relief the court deems appropriate. SAC at 3.

As noted above, defendants seek judgment on the pleadings on plaintiff's RLUIPA claims on the ground that money damages are unavailable with respect to RLUIPA claims against defendants in either their individual or their official capacities. The United States Supreme Court has recently held that money damages are unavailable for RLUIPA claims against defendants sued in their official capacity. See Sossamon v. Texas, U.S. , 131 S.Ct. 1651, 1663 (2011) ("We conclude that States, in accepting federal funding, do not consent to waive their sovereign immunity to private suits for money damages under RLUIPA because no statute expressly and unequivocally includes such a waiver."). Thus, defendants are entitled to judgment on the pleadings on plaintiff's RLUIPA claims to the extent that plaintiff has sought an award of damages against them in their official capacities.

The question that remains is whether money damages are available to plaintiff with respect to his RLUIPA claims brought against defendants in their individual capacity. The United States Supreme Court has not resolved that question and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has expressly reserved the issue. See Florer v. Congregation Pidyon Shevuyim, N.A., 639 F.3d 916, 922 n.3 (9th Cir. 2011) ("Defendants do not challenge, and we do not decide, RLUIPA's application to private actors sued for damages in their individual capacity . . . . The Ninth Circuit has not ruled on this issue in a precedential opinion, and we reserve this question for another day.").*fn2

Congress enacted RLUIPA "pursuant to its Spending Clause and Commerce Clause authority." Sossamon, 131 S.Ct. at 1656. Four circuit courts have held that RLUIPA does not authorize suits for damages against government officials in their individual capacities. See Rendelman v. Rouse, 569 F.3d 182, 187-89 (4th Cir. 2009); Sossamon v. Texas, 560 F.3d 316, 327-29 (5th Cir. 2009); Nelson v. Miller, 570 F.3d 868, 886-89 (7th Cir. 2009); Smith v. Allen, 502 F.3d 1255, 1271-75 (11th Cir. 2007). The rationale of these courts is grounded in Congress' reliance on its authority under the Spending Clause to enact RLUIPA. See, e.g., Rendelman, 569 F.3d at 187-88. Relying on the decision in Pennhurst State School & Hospital v. Halderman, 451 U.S. 1 (1981), the Fourth Circuit in Rendelman held that RLUIPA does not contain"clear notice" that receipt of federal funds is conditioned on the availability of damages against individual state officials in their individual capacities. See Rendelman, 569 F.3d at 187-88. In Sossamon, the Fifth Circuit reasoned that, as a Spending Clause enactment, RLUIPA "operates like a contract, and individual RLUIPA defendants are not parties to the contract in their individual capacities." Sossamon, 560 F.3d at 328-29. In so reasoning, the Fifth Circuit in Sossamon agreed with the Eleventh Circuit's decision in Smith. See Nelson, 570 F.3d at 887-88. The Nelson court, in turn, found the reasoning of the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits to be persuasive, and concluded that "[c]onstruing RLUIPA to provide for damages actions against officials in their individual capacities would raise serious questions regarding whether Congress had exceeded its authority under the Spending Clause." Nelson, 570 F.3d at 889.

Subsequently, several district courts, including district courts in the Ninth Circuit in general and in the Eastern District of California in particular, have followed the reasoning of the Fourth, Fifth, Seventh and Eleventh Circuits in concluding that RLUIPA does not authorize suits for damages against government officials in their individual capacities.. See Kindred v. California Department of Mental Health, No. 1:08-cv-1321-AWI-GSA-PC, 2011 WL 2709104, at *8-9 (E.D. Cal. July 12, 2011) (and cases cited therein); Birdwell v. Cates, No. Civ. S-10-0719 KJM GGH P, 2012 WL 1641964, at *9 (E.D. Cal. May 9, 2012) (and cases cited therein).*fn3

Other district courts, however, have held that RLUIPA does permit damages suits against state actors in their individual capacities. In fact, in 2007 the undersigned adopted that analysis, stating as follows:

RLUIPA's provision authorizing a cause of action states: "A person may assert a violation of this chapter as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding and obtain appropriate relief against a government." 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000cc-2(a). However, the Act defines "government" to include:

(i) a State, county, municipality, or other governmental entity created under the ...


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