United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
GLEN E. CONRAD, Chief District Judge.
Piper Rountree, a prisoner in the custody of the Virginia Department of Corrections ("VDOC"), proceeding pro se, filed this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 asserting numerous claims against various VDOC officials and employees. All of her claims arose while she was an inmate at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women ("FCCW"). The case is before the court on defendants' motion for summary judgment, which seeks dismissal of Rountree's complaint in its entirety on various grounds. For the reasons set forth herein, the motion is granted in part and taken under advisement in part.
After initial proceedings in this case, which were focused primarily on the issue of whether Rountree administratively exhausted the numerous claims she has asserted, see 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), the court issued an opinion and order concluding that she had failed to exhaust most of her claims and that they could not be brought in this suit. Dkt. Nos. 92, 93. There were four claims, however, that the court concluded were exhausted. As to those four claims, the court instructed Rountree to file a supplement to her amended complaint that clearly and succinctly set forth the factual basis for each. Rountree's filing, which this court treats and refers to herein as her complaint, refers to other instances of alleged constitutional violations. See generally Dkt. No. 94. Consistent with the court's prior order, however, the court limits its discussion to those four claims properly before it:
1. Rountree's legal mail was rejected without her permission in January 2011;
2. Defendant Horn improperly confiscated Rountree's religious books in early 2011;
3. Rountree was denied access to legal publications in January 2011; and
4. VDOC refuses to allow Rountree to stand on her prayer rug during count procedures, which she alleges substantially burdens her Buddhist faith in violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc to 2000cc-5 ("RLUIPA").
See Dkt. Nos. 93, 94. The court addresses each claim separately herein, and the facts pertaining to each claim will be discussed in context.
Summary judgment is proper under Rule 56 where "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). When ruling on a motion for summary judgment motion, the court should consider "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with... [any] affidavits" filed by the parties. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The court must "view the facts and draw reasonable inferences in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Shaw v. Stroud, 13 F.3d 791, 798 (4th Cir. 1994).
The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. If that burden has been met, the non-moving party must then come forward and establish the specific material facts in dispute to survive summary judgment. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986). Notably, the non-moving party "may not rest upon mere allegations or denials." Wilkins v. Montgomery, 751 F.3d 214, 220 (4th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted). For a party's evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact sufficient to avoid summary judgment, it must be "such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Id.
Because Rountree is proceeding in forma pauperis, the court also has an independent obligation to dismiss at any time any claim that fails to state a claim, or seeks damages from someone who is immune from them. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B).
A. Personal Liability of Defendants
Defendants first argue that, as to a number of the defendants, Rountree has not adequately alleged any facts to show that they were personally involved in the alleged violation as required to state a claim against them. The court has considered defendants' arguments and Rountree's response thereto, and agrees that most of the defendants are subject to dismissal for lack of personal involvement in the alleged violations of Rountree's rights. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 676 (2009) ("a plaintiff must plead that each Government-official defendant, through the official's own individual actions, has violated the Constitution"); Blount v. Phipps, No. 7:11cv594, 2013 WL 831684, at *5 n.12 (W.D. Va. Mar. 6, 2013) (citing Burt v. Mitchell, 589 F.Supp. 186, 192 (E.D. Va. 1984)) ("[g]enerally, prison officials are absolutely immune from liability stemming from their participation in the inmate grievance process"). Furthermore, because the court's rulings herein will result in the dismissal of her first three claims, most of the defendants are subject to dismissal for the additional reason that there is no remaining claim against them.
As to Rountree's fourth claim, which the court takes under advisement pending a summary judgment hearing to be held on March 23, 2015, she names four defendants: Harold Clarke, J. Jabe, P. Baskerville, and D. Radcliffe-Walker. Defendants do not dispute that P. Baskerville (the former warden at FCCW) is properly named as a defendant in claim four because she is alleged to have been personally involved in the constitutional violation.
Defendants argue that the complaint is insufficient to establish the personal liability of any of the other defendants, in either their individual or official capacities. The court agrees. Rountree essentially alleges that she complained to these other three defendants and that they failed to assist her. This is insufficient to confer individual liability. See Blount, No. 7:11cv594, 2013 WL 831684, at *5 n.12. Accordingly, defendants Clarke, Jabe and Radcliffe-Walker are entitled to summary judgment and will be dismissed.
The court notes, however, that part of the relief Rountree seeks in her fourth claim is injunctive in nature. In the event that Rountree prevails on this claim and it is determined that she is entitled to injunctive relief, there must be some defendant in the case that can be ordered to implement that injunctive relief. Although defendants do not identify who that individual would be, it appears that the warden of FCCW would be best positioned to implement the relief, especially since the policy challenged in claim four appears to have been created or enforced at a facility level. Accordingly, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 25(d), Tammy Brown, current Warden of FCCW,  is hereby added as a defendant and substituted in place of Baskerville as to the official capacity claims against Baskerville. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 25(d); Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 25 (1991) (the real party in interest in an official-capacity suit is the governmental entity and thus "when officials sued in this capacity in federal court die or leave office, their successors automatically assume their roles in the litigation").
The court further notes that defendants properly contend that Rountree cannot obtain any damages against defendants in their official capacities under Section 1983. Dkt. No. 100 at 27 (citing Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58 (1989)). Rountree does not dispute this. Indeed, in her response, she expressly agrees to the dismissal of all her Section 1983 damages claims against defendants in their official capacities. Dkt. No. 106 at 26.
In light of the foregoing, and the court's rulings herein as to claims one through three, all defendants other than P. Baskerville will be dismissed. Baskerville would otherwise remain as a defendant in her individual capacity as to claim four, but because the court concludes that no claim for money damages against her will lie in her individual capacity, she will also be dismissed. Tammy Brown is substituted in Baskerville's place as to the official capacity claims against Baskerville in count four, which are taken under advisement.
B. Claim One - Interference with Legal Mail in January 2011
In her first claim, Rountree alleges that she sent letters to approximately ten law firms in the last three months of 2010, seeking legal representation to assist her in challenges to various terms of her confinement and certain actions of defendants. After not receiving a response from any of them, she wrote again to the same firms asking for some sort of reply. Supplement, Dkt. No. 94 at ¶¶ 4-5.
In response, she received a "non-legal" letter from Jeff Fogel, one of the attorneys she had written. Fogel allegedly responded that "he had been trying to send [Rountree] affirmative responses to her requests but that his legal mail to her had been rejected. He had been told that it was rejected by [Rountree] herself." Id. at ¶ 6. Rountree denies ever rejecting any mail during her incarceration at FCCW. Id. at ¶ 7. She also claims that no one ever told her that any mail from any of the attorneys she had written had been received and rejected.
She claims that she was injured by this interference with her legal mail because the "refusal of Jeff Fogel's offer of legal help deprived Plaintiff of a meaningful access to the court system necessary to obtain release from incarceration, unhindered practice of her Buddhist beliefs, and access to legal and religious books necessary to both her faith and her self-representation in the legal system." Id. at ¶ 14. She further alleges that "without access to the legal help offered by Jeff Fogel, ...