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Epps v. Grannis

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

September 21, 2013

OMAR ERNEST EPPS, Plaintiff,
v.
N. GRANNIS, et al., Defendants.

ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

ROGER T. BEMOTEZ, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Omar Ernest Epps, a prisoner at California's Calipatria State Prison proceeding pro se, filed a First Amended Complaint on February 26, 2011. In his Amended Complaint he named fourteen defendants in six counts alleging fifteen claims for relief.

Plaintiff's claims for relief were grouped into two categories: (a) the § 1983 claims; and (b) the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 ("RLUIPA") claims. Previously, all of the § 1983 claims were dismissed against all of the Defendants except the claim in Count Five against Defendant Meister in his individual capacity. At the same time the civil rights claims were dismissed, an Order to Show Cause was issued because it appeared that the RLUIPA claims might be moot. After both parties filed responses, the Court found that some of the RLUIPA claims were, in fact, moot. However, the RLUIPA claim in Count 2 about a prison policy of denying Plaintiff a Kosher diet, the RLUIPA claim in Count 5 about a prison policy on Plaintiff's purchasing through religious vendors, and the RLUIPA claim in Count 6 about a policy of retaining Plaintiff's confiscated religious books described a continuing case or controversy and so the Court set the claims to be tried on the merits. The Defendants have now moved for summary judgment on each of these remaining claims.

As an introductory matter, it is noted that Plaintiff has recently notified the Court of a change of address. He indicates that he is no longer housed at Calipatria State Prison. The new address is Centinela State Prison. See Notice filed September 9, 2013 (docket no. 138). As a result of the move, his RLUIPA claims seeking injunctive relief are probably moot. "An inmate's release from prison while his claims are pending generally will moot any claims for injunctive relief relating to the prison's policies unless the suit has been certified as a class action." Alvarez v. Hill, 667 F.3d 1061, 1064 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting Dilley v. Gunn, 64 F.3d 1365, 1368 (9th Cir. 1995)). The same is true for a transfer from one prison to another. Rendelman v. Rouse, 569 F.3d 182, 186 (4th Cir. 2009) ("[A]s a general rule, a prisoner's transfer or release from a particular prison moots his claims for injunctive and declaratory relief with respect to his incarceration there."); Sossamon v. Lone Star State of Texas, 560 F.3d 316, 325-26 (5th Cir. 2009). "The reasons for finding mootness in such a context are clear. Once an inmate is removed from the 2 environment in which he is subjected to the challenged policy or practice, absent a claim for damages, he no longer has a legally cognizable interest in a judicial decision on the merits of his claim." Lee v. Gurney, Case No. 3:08cv99, 2010 WL 5113782, at *10 (E.D. Va. Dec. 9, 2010) (dismissing RLUIPA claim upon plaintiff's transfer to different prison). However, even if the claims are not moot because of his transfer, they fail for other reasons.

II. DISCUSSION

Summary judgment must be granted where the record shows "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The moving party must "persuade the court that there is no genuine issue of material fact." Nissan Fire & Marine Ins. Co., Ltd. v. Fritz Cos., Inc., 210 F.3d 1099, 1102 (9th Cir. 2000).

A. The RLUIPA Claims

RLUIPA provides that a government generally shall not "impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution." 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a). This general prohibition is tempered. A burden is permissible if it is not substantial or if it is in furtherance of a "compelling government interest" and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. Id. The standard is to be applied giving "due deference to the experience and expertise of prison and jail administrators in establishing necessary regulations and procedures to maintain good order, security and discipline, consistent with consideration of costs and limited resources.'" Hartmann v. Cal. Dep't of Corrections, 707 F.3d 1114, 1124 (9th Cir. 2013) (quoting Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709, 723 (2005)).

The plaintiff bears the initial burden of proof on whether a policy substantially burdens his exercise of religion. Id. For a plaintiff who is incarcerated, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that, "a substantial burden occurs where the state... denies an important benefit because of conduct mandated by religious belief, thereby putting substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs.'" Id. at 1125 (quoting Warsoldier v. Woodford, 418 F.3d 989, 995 (9th Cir. 2005). If the Plaintiff bears his initial burden, then the burden shifts to the government. "Once the plaintiff establishes that the challenged state action substantially burdens his religious exercise, the government bears the burden of establishing that the regulation serves a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means of achieving that interest." Shakur v. Schriro, 514 F.3d 878, 889 (9th Cir. 2008).

1. Named Defendants Lack Authority

The first question Defendants pose is about their limited official authority to change the policies Plaintiff challenges. RLUIPA does not provide for awards of money damages against prison officials. Alvarez, 667 F.3d at 1063 (RLUIPA does not provide for damages against state officials); Holley v. Cal. Dep't of Corr., 599 F.3d 1108, 1114 (9th Cir. 2010) (same); Rendelman v. Rouse, 569 F.3d 182, 189 (4th Cir. 2009) (RLUIPA does not provide for damages against individual capacity defendants for denial of Kosher meals); Sossamon v. Lone Star State of Texas, 560 F.3d 316, 329 (5th Cir. 2009) (RLUIPA does not provide for damages against individual capacity defendants); Nelson v. Miller, 570 F.3d 868, 889 (7th Cir. 2009) (same); Smith v. Allen, 502 F.3d 1255, 1275 (11th Cir. 2007) (same). On the other hand, RLUIPA may provide injunctive relief.

To win injunctive relief, a plaintiff need not prove a named official's personal involvement in the alleged RLUIPA violation. Hartmann, 707 F.3d at 1127. Instead, a plaintiff must name as a defendant a government official who can appropriately respond and change policy if injunctive relief is ordered. Id. ("Rather, a plaintiff need only identify the law or policy challenged as a constitutional violation and name the official within the entity who can appropriately respond to injunctive relief. " (emphasis added)).

Plaintiff has named a large number of prison officials as Defendants. However, Defendants have presented numerous declarations demonstrating that none of the sued Defendants have authority to change their actions or ...


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