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Saif'ullah v. Albritton

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division

June 30, 2017

KHALIFAH EL-AMIN DIN SAIF'ULLAH, Plaintiff,
v.
ASSOCIATE WARDEN S.R. ALBRITTON, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER DENYING MOTION FOR JUDGMENT ON THE PLEADINGS; DENYING MOTION TO REVOKE SAIF'ULLAH'S IN FORMA PAUPERIS STATUS; GRANTING MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          LUCH H. KOH United States District Judge

         Plaintiffs Khalifah El-Amin Din Saif'ullah, Enver Karafili, Montshu Abdullah, Amir Shabazz, Abdullah Saddiq, Mujahid Ta'lib Din, Andre Lamont Batten, Hatim Fardan, Abdul Aziz, Anthony Bernard Smith, Jr., and Damian Mitchell are California state prisoners proceeding pro se. Each plaintiff filed a civil rights complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. After a review of the complaints, the court issued an order relating and consolidating these eleven cases. On October 18, 2016, defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings based on qualified immunity in all eleven cases; to revoke the in forma pauperis (“IFP”) status of plaintiff Khalifah E.D. Saif'ullah (“Saif'ullah”) in Case No. 15-CV-5600 LHK; and for summary judgment in ten plaintiffs' cases but not in Saif'ullah's case for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Each plaintiff filed an opposition in his respective case, and defendants filed replies. Defendants' request for judicial notice is GRANTED. For the reasons stated below, defendants' motion for a judgment on the pleadings is DENIED, defendants' motion to revoke Saif'ullah's IFP status is DENIED, and defendants' motion for summary judgment based on exhaustion is GRANTED.[1]

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         According to the complaints, plaintiffs are practicing Muslims incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison (“SQSP”) in the West Block. As part of their religious beliefs, plaintiffs must pray five times daily at specified times. Plaintiffs believe that they will receive at least 25 times more blessings during a congregational prayer than during individual prayer. SQSP staff had an unofficial rule that prevented SQSP Muslim inmates from offering congregational prayer in groups of more than 4 inmates at a time.

         On September 22, 2013, non-defendant Correctional Sergeant Dutton prohibited plaintiffs from offering congregational prayer of more than 4 prisoners during “open dayroom” even though a group of about 25 Christian prisoners was simultaneously offering an evening congregational prayer and was not interrupted by correctional staff.

         Plaintiffs filed a group administrative appeal, SQ-13-2801, complaining that they were being discriminated against based on their religion. At the first level of review, the response denied the appeal, but noted that “Muslims are entitled to congregational prayer in their designated worship area (i.e., church).” Saif'ullah Compl., Dkt. No. 1 at 27. At the second level of review, the prison denied plaintiffs' request to participate in congregational prayer of more than 4 prisoners in the open dayroom, but granted “his request to practice his religious faith without discrimination; practice his faith in designated areas of the chapel, his assigned cell, or any other appropriate dayroom are where he can reasonably practice his faith.” Saif'ullah Compl., Dkt. No.1 at 29. At the third level of review, the plaintiffs' group appeal was granted, and plaintiffs' complaint was referred to the Religious Review Committee. Based on the Religious Review Committee's discussions, on June 3, 2014, defendant Associate Warden Albritton issued a religious accommodation order (“June 3, 2014 order”), which authorized: (1) “Faith prayer will be allowed to occur in the West Block during the evening activity program, approximately at sunset”; (2) “No more than 15-individuals will be allowed to participate in these sessions”; and (3) “Prayer will last no longer than 6 to 8 minutes.” Saif'ullah Compl., Dkt. No. 1 at 39.

         Beginning on June 28, 2014, plaintiffs joined in congregational noon, afternoon, and sunset prayers in the open dayroom. On November 17, 2014, Associate Warden Albritton and Correctional Lieutenant R. Kluger (“Kluger”) directed Saif'ullah to inform the other Muslim prisoners to stop conducting noon and afternoon congregational prayers in the open dayroom.[2]Defendants stated that the June 3, 2014 order only permitted Muslim prisoners to participate in congregational prayer in the open dayroom from 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., and did not authorize noon or afternoon congregational prayers in the open dayroom.

         Plaintiffs allege that Saif'ullah filed an administrative appeal, SQ-14-2903, specifically challenging defendants' prohibition on noon and afternoon congregational prayers in the open dayroom. That appeal, SQ-14-2903, reached the third level of review, which again referred the matter to the Religious Review Committee. Plaintiffs allege that the Religious Review Committee ultimately decided to reduce the number of Muslim prisoners for congregational prayers to no more than five, while the Jewish and Christian prisoners are permitted to offer an unlimited amount of congregational prayers with as many prisoners as they would like in the open dayroom.

         The court found that, liberally construing the complaints, plaintiffs stated cognizable claims that defendants violated the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause, First Amendment Establishment Clause, First Amendment right against retaliation, Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection, and the RLUIPA.

         Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings

         Defendants have filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) on the basis of qualified immunity in all eleven cases. Defendants argue that, taking the factual allegations of the complaints as true, no reasonable officer would believe that enforcement of the June 3, 2014 order to prohibit plaintiffs from participating in a large group[3]congregational prayer in the open dayroom outside of the specified evening time was clearly unlawful.

         I. Standard of Review

         After the pleadings are closed “but early enough not to delay trial, ” a party may move for judgment on the pleadings. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). “[T]he same standard of review applicable to a Rule 12(b) motion applies to its Rule 12(c) analog” because the motions are “functionally identical.” Dworkin v. Hustler Magazine, Inc., 867 F.2d 1188, 1192 (9th Cir. 1989). A Rule 12(c) motion may thus be predicated on either 1) the lack of a cognizable legal theory or 2) insufficient facts to support a cognizable legal claim. See Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dep't, 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990). When considering a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(c), the court “must accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true and construe them in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” Fleming v. Pickard, 581 F.3d 922, 925 (9th Cir. 2009). “A judgment on the pleadings is proper if, taking all of [the plaintiff]'s allegations in its pleadings as true, [the defendant] is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Compton Unified School Dist. v. Addison, 598 F.3d 1181, 1185 (9th Cir. 2010).

         Although a court generally is confined to the pleadings on a Rule 12(c) motion, “[a] court may, however, consider certain materials - documents attached to the complaint, documents incorporated by reference in the complaint, or matters of judicial notice - without converting the motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment.” United States v. Ritchie, 342 F.3d 903, 908 (9th Cir. 2003); In re Silicon Graphics Inc. Sec. Litig., 183 F.3d 970, 986 (9th Cir. 1999). However, the attachment of a document as an exhibit to the complaint does not mean that the plaintiff has adopted as true all the statements in the document. See Gant v. Wallingford Bd. of Educ., 69 F.3d 669, 674 (2d Cir. 1995). For example, attaching to the complaint a letter written by the defendant does not mean that the plaintiff has admitted that the defendant's statements are true; rather, it means only that plaintiff admits that the defendant made the statements.

         II. Qualified Immunity

         Defendants argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity based on the face of the complaints and their attachments because defendants ordered plaintiff to comply with the June 3, 2014 order. Defendants claim that no reasonable officer would believe that the enforcement of the June 3, 2014 order to prohibit a large group prayer outside of the specified evening time was clearly unlawful.

         The defense of qualified immunity protects “government officials . . . from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). The rule of qualified immunity protects “‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law;'” defendants can have a reasonable, but mistaken, belief about the facts or about what the law requires in any given situation. Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 202 (2001) (quoting Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986)).

         A court considering a claim of qualified immunity must determine whether the plaintiff has alleged the deprivation of an actual constitutional right and whether such right was clearly established such that it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted. See Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009). “If no constitutional right would have been violated were the allegations established, there is no necessity for further inquiries concerning qualified immunity.” Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201.

         “[A] right is clearly established only if its contours are sufficiently clear that ‘a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.' In other words, ‘existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.'” Carroll v. Carman, 135 S.Ct. 348, 350 (2014) (citations omitted). The inquiry of whether a constitutional right was clearly established must be undertaken in light of the “specific context” of the case, not as a broad general proposition. Saucier, 533 U.S. at 202. The relevant, dispositive inquiry in determining whether a right is clearly established is whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted. Id. It is plaintiff's burden to prove the existence of a “clearly established” right at the time of the challenged conduct. Maraziti v. First Interstate Bank, 953 F.2d 520, 523 (9th Cir. 1992). The defendant bears the burden of establishing that his actions were reasonable, even if he violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights. Doe v. Petaluma City School Dist., 54 F.3d 1447, 1450 (9th Cir. 1995).

         As recognized in the court's screening orders, plaintiffs' complaints alleged violations of a First Amendment Free Exercise Clause, First Amendment Establishment Clause, First Amendment right against retaliation, Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection, and the RLUIPA. Although plaintiffs did assert in their federal complaints that defendants violated the June 3, 2014 order, that assertion was only one portion of their allegations. Among other things, plaintiffs also argued that Christian and Jewish prisoners were allowed to offer an unlimited amount of congregational prayers without a maximum number of participants. Plaintiffs alleged that defendants directed plaintiffs to stop noon and afternoon congregational prayers in retaliation for plaintiffs having filed an administrative grievance.

         A resolution of the qualified immunity defense at this stage of the proceeding raises factual questions outside the context of plaintiffs' complaints. While the June 3, 2014 order appears to explicitly authorize up to 15 Muslim prisoners to participate in congregational prayer “during the evening program, approximately at sunset” in the open dayroom, there is no indication that it, or some other rule, necessarily prohibited Muslim prisoners from engaging in large group noon or afternoon congregational prayers in the open dayroom. That is, the June 3, 2014 order does not mandate exclusion of all other large group congregational prayer times in the open dayroom, although defendants interpreted it as such. It is also possible that large group congregational prayers at other times in the open dayroom were governed by other rules than the June 3, 2014 order. These facts are not before the court.

         Whether the defendants' conduct was reasonable therefore involves a factual analysis of the circumstances surrounding defendants' actions, and a determination of whether a reasonable official similarly situated would have been aware that his actions violated clearly established law involving claims of violating the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause, First Amendment Establishment Clause, First Amendment right against retaliation, Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection, and the RLUIPA. The court cannot conduct this type of inquiry when ruling on a motion for judgment on the pleadings.

         Focusing on the facts as alleged by plaintiffs in their complaints, the court concludes that at this stage of the proceeding, defendants have not established that they could have reasonably, but mistakenly, believed that their conduct did not violate plaintiffs' clearly established constitutional rights. Assuming that defendants directed plaintiffs to stop their noon or afternoon congregational prayer in the open dayroom based on defendants' reliance on the June 3, 2014 order, the court would need affidavits or evidence outside plaintiffs' complaints and attachments thereto to establish defendants' beliefs, which would improperly convert this motion to a motion for summary judgment. Moreover, even if defendants' conduct was in reliance on the June 3, 2014 order, defendants have not attempted to argue how their conduct was reasonable with respect to preventing Muslim prisoners from participating in congregational prayers, but allowing Christian and Jewish prisoners to participate in congregational prayer in the open ...


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