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Austin v. Brown

United States District Court, S.D. California

July 3, 2019

JAMES AUSTIN CDCR # AK-6078, Plaintiff,
v.
ROBERT BROWN; FABRICE HADJADJ; J. DAVIES; P. COVELLO, Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS PLAINTIFF'S COMPLAINT PURSUANT TO FRCP 12(b)(6) [ECF NO. 12]

          HON. WILLIAM Q. HAYES UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         James Austin (“Plaintiff”), a prisoner at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility (“RJD”) in San Diego, California, is proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis (“IFP”) with a complaint (“Compl.”) pursuant to the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (ECF No. 1) against Defendants Brown, Hadjadj, Davies, and Covello (“Defendants”). Plaintiff claims RJD officials violated his right to free exercise of his Buddhist faith under the First Amendment, imposed a substantial burden on the exercise of that faith in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), and denied him equal protection of the law under the Fourteenth Amendment. (Id. at 9-34.[1]) He seeks compensatory and punitive damages, “mental and emotional” damages, declaratory relief, and injunctive relief. (Id. at 34-36.)

         Defendants have filed a Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) on the basis that Plaintiff has failed to state a First Amendment, Equal Protection, or RLUIPA claim. (ECF No. 12-1 at 11-17.) Defendants also argue they are entitled to qualified immunity and Plaintiff's state law claims should also be dismissed. (Id. at 17-20.) Finally, Defendants seeks to dismiss any claim Plaintiff purports to bring on behalf of other RJD inmates who practice the Buddhist religion. (Id. at 19.) Defendants have also filed a request for judicial notice which is GRANTED. (ECF No. 12-2.)

         Plaintiff sought two extensions of time to respond to Defendants' Motion (ECF Nos. 16, 18), and Magistrate Judge Jill L. Burkhardt granted both extensions (ECF Nos. 17, 19). Plaintiff was given until May 8, 2019 to file his opposition. (ECF No. 19 at 3.) That date has long since passed and Plaintiff has not filed an opposition.

         The Court has determined that this Motion is suitable for disposition upon the papers without oral argument and that no Report and Recommendation from Magistrate Judge Burkhardt is necessary. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A); CivLR 72.3(a).

         Having considered the papers submitted, and for the reasons discussed below, the Court GRANTS in part, and DENIES in part, the Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).

         I. Plaintiff's Complaint

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendants deprived him and all RJD “prisoner[s] at facilities A, B, C, D, and E of weekly Buddhist services” and failed to provide “adequate accommodations necessary to properly practice [their] Buddhist religion as [it] mandate[s] meditation, chanting[, ] and prostration held indoors.” (ECF No. 1 at 9.) Plaintiff further alleges that Defendants “have not made any alternative accommodations to guarantee Buddhist weekly services and deny Buddhist inmates of equal chapel access.” (Id. at 9- 10.) Plaintiff claims “[e]ach defendant intentionally act[s] with discrimination against the Buddhist [r]eligion and [its] members.” (Id. at 10.)

         II. Defendants' Motion to Dismiss

         A. Defendants' Arguments

         Defendants seek dismissal of Plaintiff's First Amendment claims because his allegations are “not supported by case law.” (Defs.' Mem. of Ps&As in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss (hereafter “Defs.' Ps&As”), ECF No. 12-1 at 12.) Defendants further claim that Plaintiff has failed to state an Equal Protection claim “because he has not pled any facts showing that less-than-weekly chapel access was intentionally discriminatory.” (Id. at 14.) In addition, Defendants claim Plaintiff's RLUIPA allegations are insufficient to show that they have “substantially burdened Plaintiff's practice of Buddhism.” (Id. at 16.) Finally, Defendants claim they are entitled to qualified immunity because Defendants' “reliance” on published Ninth Circuit case law that purportedly contains “virtually identical facts” was “reasonable.” (Id. at 18.)

         B. Legal Standard

         A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) “tests the legal sufficiency of a claim.” Navarro v. Block, 250 F.3d 729, 732 (9th Cir. 2001). Because Rule 12(b)(6) focuses on the “sufficiency” of a claim rather than the claim's substantive merits, “a court may [ordinarily] look only at the face of the complaint to decide a motion to dismiss.” Van Buskirk v. Cable News Network, Inc., 284 F.3d 977, 980 (9th Cir. 2002). However, courts may consider exhibits that are attached to the complaint. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 10(c) (“A copy of a written instrument that is an exhibit to a pleading is a part of the pleading for all purposes.”); Hal Roach Studios, Inc. v. Richard Feiner & Co., 896 F.2d 1542, 1555 n.19 (9th Cir. 1990) (stating that “material which is properly submitted as part of the complaint may be considered” in ruling on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss (citing Amfac Mortg. Corp. v. Ariz. Mall of Tempe, Inc., 583 F.2d 426, 429-30 (9th Cir. 1978))). However, exhibits that contradict the allegations of a complaint may fatally undermine the complaint's allegations. See Sprewell v. Golden State Warriors, 266 F.3d 979, 988 (9th Cir. 2001) (“[A] plaintiff can . . . plead himself out of a claim by including . . . details contrary to his claims.” (citing Steckman v. Hart Brewing, Inc., 143 F.3d 1293, 1295-96 (9th Cir. 1998) (“[Courts] are not required to accept as true conclusory allegations which are contradicted by documents referred to in the complaint.”))); see also Nat'l Ass'n for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis v. Cal. Bd. of Psychology, 228 F.3d 1043, 1049 (9th Cir. 2000) (stating that courts “may consider facts contained in documents attached to the complaint” to determine whether the complaint states a claim for relief).

         “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.' A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citations omitted) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556, 570 (2007)). “All allegations of material fact are taken as true and construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Cahill v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 80 F.3d 336, 337-38 (9th Cir. 1996) (citing Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n v. Espy, 45 F.3d 1337, 1340 (9th Cir. 1995)). The Court need not, however, “accept as true allegations that are merely conclusory, unwarranted deductions of fact, or unreasonable inferences.” Sprewell, 266 F.3d at 988 (citing Clegg v. Cult Awareness Network, 18 F.3d 752, 754-55 (9th Cir. 1994)); see also Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (“Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555)); Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986) (“[A court is] not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.”).

         “When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. “The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement,' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “Where a complaint pleads facts that are ‘merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, it ‘stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of “entitlement to relief.”'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557); see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570 (stating that when a plaintiff has not “nudged [his] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible, [his] complaint must be dismissed”). “In sum, for a complaint to survive a motion to dismiss, the non-conclusory ‘factual content,' and reasonable inferences [drawn] from that content, must be plausibly suggestive of a claim entitling the plaintiff to relief.” Moss v. United States Secret Serv., 572 F.3d 962, 969 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678).

         “In civil rights cases where the plaintiff appears pro se, the court must construe the pleadings liberally and must afford [the] plaintiff the benefit of any doubt.” Karim-Panahi v. L.A. Police Dep't, 839 F.2d 621, 623 (9th Cir. 1988). The rule of liberal construction is “particularly important in civil rights cases.” Ferdik v. Bonzelet, 963 F.2d 1258, 1261 (9th Cir. 1992) (citing Eldridge v. Block, 832 F.2d 1132, 1137 (9th Cir. 1987)). The rule, however, “applies only to a plaintiff's factual allegations.” Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 330 n.9 (1989). Courts may not “supply essential elements of claims that were not initially pled.” Ivey v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. of Alaska, 673 F.2d 266, 268 (9th Cir. 1982). “Vague and conclusory allegations of official participation in civil rights violations are not sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss.” Id.; see also Jones v. Cmty. Redev. Agency, 733 F.2d 646, 649 (9th Cir. 1984) (finding conclusory allegations unsupported by facts insufficient to state a claim under § 1983).

         C. First Amendment Claims

         “The right to exercise religious practices and beliefs does not terminate at the prison door. The free exercise right, however, is necessarily limited by the fact of incarceration, and may be curtailed in order to achieve legitimate correctional goals or to maintain security.” McElyea v. Babbitt, 833 F.2d 196, 197 (9th Cir. 1987) (citations omitted) (citing O'Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 348 (1987); Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 545 (1979)). The protections of the Free Exercise Clause are triggered when prison officials burden the practice of an inmate's religion by preventing him from engaging in conduct which he sincerely believes is ...


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