United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
MICHAEL F. URBANSKI, District Judge.
Wazir Shabazz, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se, filed this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Constitution, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), alleging that the Virginia Department of Corrections ("VDOC") grooming policy violates his right to free exercise of his Muslim religious belief that he should not cut his beard. He also asserts an equal protection claim, because some inmates at another prison can grow their beards and retain privileges. Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss, and Shabazz has responded, making the matter ripe for disposition. Upon review of the record, the court finds that the motion to dismiss must be granted.
Shabazz's statement of facts is brief. Shabazz is incarcerated at Keen Mountain Correctional Center ("KMCC"), where he is assigned to the general population area. He alleges that the grooming policy forbids him from growing his beard longer than one-quarter inch as the "Shari'ah laws of Islam" dictate for him as a Muslim. (Compl. 2.) In fact, under the challenged VDOC grooming policy, Operating Procedure ("OP") 864.1, Shabazz may grow his beard, uncut in keeping with his religious beliefs, but he may do so only in a segregation housing area, with more restricted privileges and out-of-cell activities than general population inmates enjoy. If Shabazz wishes to remain in the general population, he may grow a beard, but will be charged with a disciplinary infraction if he fails to keep it trimmed to one-quarter-inch in length.
Shabazz points to a designated pod at Wallens Ridge State Prison (known as the Graduated Privilege Program or GPP) where inmates are allowed to grow their beards and hair as long as they wish, while allegedly enjoying the same privileges as inmates in the general population. Inmates in this pod must, however, agree to be "quarantine[d]" to this Wallens Ridge pod in order to grow their hair. Shabazz states that he is not willing to be quarantined in this manner in order to exercise his religious beliefs on hair and beard growth.
Shabazz sues Dave Robinson, VDOC Operations Director, and L. Fleming, the warden of Keen Mountain, seeking monetary damages and injunctive relief ordering the abolishment of the grooming policy. His complaint asserts that the grooming policy and procedures violate his rights to free exercise of his religious beliefs under the First and Fourteenth Amendments and RLUIPA and deny him equal protection under Fourteenth Amendment. The defendants have filed a motion to dismiss and Shabazz has responded, making the matter ripe for disposition.
A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint. See, e.g., Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly , 553 U.S. 544, 553-63 (2007). The court must grant the motion to dismiss if the complaint and attachments does not allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Giarratano v. Johnson , 521 F.3d 298, 302 (4th Cir. 2008) (internal quotations omitted). In conducting its review, a court must construe the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, but "need not accept as true unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments." Id . (internal quotations omitted).
Neither a state nor its officers acting in their official capacities are persons subject to suit for monetary damages under § 1983. Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police , 491 U.S. 58 (1989). Similarly, neither of the defendants is subject to suit for monetary damages under RLUIPA, which does not authorize a private cause of action for money damages against state officials in their official or personal capacities. Sossamon v. Texas, ___ U.S. ___ , 131 S.Ct. 1651, 1660 (2011) (holding that state officials sued in their official capacities enjoy Eleventh Amendment immunity against RLUIPA claims for damages); Rendelman v. Rouse , 569 F.3d 182, 189 (4th Cir. 2009) (holding that RLUIPA does not authorize claims for monetary damages against state officials in their individual capacities). Consequently, the court will grant the defendants' motion to dismiss as to all of Shabazz's RLUIPA claims for monetary relief.
The Eleventh Amendment does not bar Shabazz' claims for injunctive relief or his constitutional claims for monetary relief against the defendants in their individual capacities. Lovelace v. Lee , 472 F.3d 174, 193-94, 202 (4th Cir. 2006). These claims, however, must be dismissed because they are without merit.
The First Amendment and RLUIPA protect an inmate's right to the free exercise of religion. U.S. Const. amend. I; 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-2(b). To state a claim that prison officials or regulations have violated his free exercise right under the Constitution or RLUIPA, an inmate plaintiff must prove that he holds a sincere religious belief and that the official action or regulation substantially burdened his exercise of that belief. Lovelace v. Lee , 472 F.3d 174, 185-87 (4th Cir. 2006); Hernandez v. Comm'r , 490 U.S. 680, 699 (1989). Even a prison policy that substantially burdens an inmate's ability to practice his religious beliefs nevertheless withstands a First Amendment challenge when it is reasonably related to furtherance of a legitimate governmental or penal interest. O'Lone v. Estate of Shabazz , 482 U.S. 342, 349 (1987); Turner v. Safley , 482 U.S. 78, 89-91 (1987). To survive a RLUIPA challenge, a prison regulation must further a compelling penological interest by the least restrictive means. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a). In either context, courts must afford "due deference to the experience and expertise of prison and jail administrators." See, e.g., Cutter v. Wilkinson , 544 U.S. 709, 723 (2005).
The VDOC's grooming policy requirement for inmates to cut their hair and beards to meet policy standards or live in segregated housing areas has repeatedly been upheld in the face of First Amendment and RLUIPA challenges. See, e.g., McRae v. Johnson , 261 F.Appx. 554 (4th Cir. 2008); Ragland v. Angelone , 420 F.Supp.2d 507 (W.D. Va. 2006), affirmed, 193 F.Appx. 218 (4th Cir. 2006), cert. denied, Ragland v. Powell , 549 U.S. 1306 (2007). The Court in McRae held that even assuming an inmate established that being unable to grow his beard was a substantial burden on his sincere religious practice, prison officials had demonstrated that the beard length restrictions and segregation option furthered compelling state interests "in maintaining discipline and security among the inmate population, maintaining the ...