United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
KRISTOPHER M. GUPTON, Plaintiff,
MR. B. WRIGHT, ET AL., Defendants.
GLEN E. CONRAD, Chief District Judge.
Kristopher M. Gupton, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se, filed this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the defendants, Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) prison officials, violated Gupton's free exercise rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc, et seq. Upon review of the record, the court concludes that defendants are entitled to summary judgment.
At the time he filed this action, Gupton was incarcerated at River North Correctional Center ("RNCC"). In April 2014, Gupton ordered a religious publication called "My Awakening." Property Officer Felts,  and later, Officer Walz for Warden Wright, disapproved Gupton's order under prison security policies, upon finding it to be
[m]aterial that emphasizes depictions or promotion of violence, disorder, insurrection, terrorist, or criminal activity in violation of state or federal laws or the violation of the Offender Disciplinary Procedure, and... depicts, describes, or promotes gang bylaws, initiations, organizational structure, codes, or other gang-related activity or association.
(Compl. ¶ 24, ECF No. 1.) Felts forwarded Gupton's request to obtain this publication to the Virginia Department of Corrections ("VDOC") Publication Review Committee ("PRC"). On May 30, 2014, the PRC disapproved "The Awakening" for the security reasons already cited by Felts and Wright. Gupton then filed a grievance to RNCC officials, complaining that denial of his publication constituted "discrimination, " because the institution allowed prisoners to possess other publications about racial or religious violence. Assistant Warden Booker ruled Gupton's grievance unfounded, based on the PRC's disapproval of the publication, and on appeal, Chief of Operations Robinson upheld Booker's ruling.
Gupton alleges that in October 2014, he requested a "holiday package" from the commissary for the Asatru celebration of the winter solstice on December 21, 2014, a holiday approved by the VDOC Faith Review Committee ("FRC") for inmates to celebrate. Warden Wright told Gupton that according to an August 2014 memorandum from Robinson, the accommodation approved for this religious holiday was a special service and celebratory meal comprised of items from the regular prison menu. Gupton filed an unsuccessful grievance, complaining that since other religious groups received holiday packages, it was discriminatory not to provide a holiday package for his Asatru holiday celebration.
Gupton also complained to prison officials that publications requested by the prison's Asatru group were being denied and asked for the review standard. RNCC Institution Investigator Horton replied, "All material that is allowed will be processed. Any other material will be checked case by case. If it is found to be racial or hate group material will be disapproved." (Compl. ¶ 26.) Gupton filed grievances, complaining that Horton's review standard was discriminatory. Each grievance was returned for insufficient information about what materials Horton had denied to Gupton. Gupton's appeal of these intake decisions was rejected. In September 2014, Gupton filed an informal complaint after Horton disapproved an item from his incoming mail, an "Invictus Cataloge." (Pl. Resp. Ex. B, ECF No. 37.) Horton responded that book descriptions in the catalog included excerpts "that preached hate of other races and promoted violence against non-whites. Material that is detrimental to a prison environment will not be allowed." (Id.)
Gupton filed this § 1983 action against the following defendants: Felts, Wright, Booker, Robinson; Lou Cei of the VDOC's PRC; Regional Ombudsmen Parr; RVCC Institution Ombudsman Walls; Operations Manager Waltz; Ombudsman Services Unit Manager Locust; RNCC Food Service Director Morrison; and a John Doe Regional Ombudsman. Liberally construed, Gupton's submissions alleges the following violations of his rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments and RLUIPA: (1) denial of the book "My Awakening, " although other books about racial violence are allowed; (2) denial of his requested holiday package, although other religious groups were approved to receive such packages; and (3) Horton's rejection of several books Gupton requested based on the officer's personal prejudice against Gupton's Asatru faith. As relief, Gupton seeks injunctive and declaratory relief and monetary damages. Defendants have filed a motion for summary judgment, and Gupton has responded, making the matter ripe for disposition.
Among other things, Gupton's complaint seeks declaratory and injunctive relief directing RNCC officials to allow the publications and religious items he requested while incarcerated there and that VDOC recognize and permit offenders to observe Asatru holidays. (Compl. ¶¶ 44-49.) Defendants argue that Gupton's claims for injunctive and declaratory relief must be dismissed as moot, since he has been released from prison.
The jurisdiction of federal courts is limited to live cases or controversies. U.S. Const. art. III, § 1. If developments occur during the course of a case which render the court unable to grant a party the relief requested, the claims must be dismissed as moot. Blanciak v. Allegheny Ludlum Co., 77 F.3d 690, 698-99 (3d Cir. 1996). The release of a prisoner generally renders moot any claims for injunctive or declaratory relief relating to the former place of confinement. See County of Los Angeles v. Davis, 440 U.S. 625, 631 (1979); Williams v. Griffin, 952 F.2d 820, 823 (4th Cir. 1991) (finding that prisoner's transfer rendered moot his claims for injunctive and declaratory relief).
It is undisputed that on June 1, 2015, shortly after filing this § 1983 action, Gupton received a direct discharge and is no longer in the custody of the VDOC. Because Gupton is no longer subject to the RNCC living conditions of which he complains, Gupton no longer needs or could be granted the relief he sought through a declaration or injunction. ...