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Muhammad v. Commonwealth

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

March 17, 2016

ABDUL-HAMZA WALI MUHAMMAD, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA, ETAL., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Glen E. Conrad Chief United States District Judge

This prisoner civil rights action seeking monetary damages and injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA") is presently before the court on the report and recommendation ("the report") of United States Magistrate Judge Joel C. Hoppe. The report recommends granting in part and denying in part defendants' motion for summary judgment and denying several motions by plaintiff. The magistrate judge makes only a recommendation to this court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976). The court is charged with making "a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

Plaintiff has submitted several pleadings that the court liberally construes as objections to the report.[1] In light of plaintiff s objections, the court has reviewed, de novo in accordance with § 636(b)(1), the portions of the 40-page report to which they refer, and pertinent portions of the record. The court concludes that while one of plaintiffs objections must be sustained, the majority of his objections must be overruled. Therefore, the court will adopt the report in part and reject it in part.

Discussion

The pro se plaintiff, Abdul-Hamza Wali Muhammad, is an inmate at Red Onion State Prison ("ROSP"), operated by the Virginia Department of Corrections ("VDOC"). Muhammad's complaint, as amended (ECF Nos. 1 and 13) and liberally construed, alleges six separate claims: (1) Muhammad was misclassified on May 21, 2014, and thereby improperly kept in segregation; (2) the Common Fare diet Muhammad receives at ROSP is incompatible with his Nation of Islam ("NOI") religious beliefs; (3) defendants failed to provide Muhammad with proper food on the proper date for two NOI feasts in 2014; (4) he was unfairly convicted of two disciplinary infractions after Inmate Bratcher attacked and injured him on January 5, 2013; (5) corrections officers failed to intervene to protect him during Bratcher's attack; and (6) he was unfairly convicted of a disciplinary charge for urinating in a classroom. The defendant prison officials are sued in both their individual and official capacities.[2]

On Claim 1, the report recommends granting summary judgment as to all defendants and legal contentions, with the exception of the procedural due process claim against Defendants Day, Kegley, and Mathena, related to Muhammad's Institutional Classification Authority ("ICA") hearing on May 21, 2014. With respect to this remaining portion of Claim 1, the report recommends denying defendants' motion under Rule 12(b)(6) and inviting Day, Kegley, and Mathena to file a supplemental motion for summary judgment, in light of Incumaa v. Stirling, 791 F.3d 517 (4th Cir. 2015), a case decided after defendants filed their present motion.

Muhammad objects to the report's conclusion that Defendants Artrip and Richeson are entitled to summary judgment on this claim. The court agrees with the report, however, that Muhammad's amended complaint focuses on a specific classification decision that Day and Kegley made and that Mathena upheld. Accordingly, the court will overrule Muhammad's objection, adopt the report as to Claim 1, and invite a supplemental motion for summary judgment on this claim.

As to Claim 2, alleging that Common Fare menu items are incompatible with Muhammad's NOI beliefs, the report recommends granting summary judgment for defendants. The report finds that Muhammad fails to demonstrate defendants' personal involvement or to state facts on which a fact finder could determine that the current Common Fare menu places a substantial burden on his NOI religious practices. The report also concludes that even if Muhammad could show a substantial burden, the defendants' evidence establishes that accommodation of offenders' religious dietary preferences on an individual basis at each VDOC institution would present prohibitive administrative and financial hurdles when compared to the centralized Common Fare program.[3] Finding no genuine issue of material fact in dispute, the court will overrule Muhammad's objections and adopt the report as to Claim 2.

As to Claim 3, alleging violation of Muhammad's rights related to two religious feast days in July and October 2014, the report recommends granting summary judgment for defendants on the merits. It is undisputed that Muhammad elected to receive his Common Fare diet during Ramadan 2014, that prison officials scheduled the post-Ramadan feast day in consultation with religious experts, and that Muhammad received a Common Fare meal on that day. Moreover, Muhammad admits that he received a special feast meal on the October 2014 feast day of which he complained in this action. The report concludes that Muhammad has failed to demonstrate that defendants, by providing him with Common Fare meal instead of a special feast meal on one occasion, placed a substantial burden on his religious practice in violation of his rights under the First Amendment or RLUIPA.[4] Finding no merit to Muhammad's objections, the court will overrule them and adopt the report as to Claim 3.[5]

On Claim 4, alleging deficiencies in disciplinary proceedings related to Bratcher's attack, the report recommends summary judgment for defendants. Specifically, the report concludes that defendants involved in the disciplinary actions are entitled to absolute immunity as to Muhammad's claims for monetary damages. See Ward v. Johnson, 690 F.2d 1098, 1105 (4th Cir. 1982) (en banc) (citing Butz v. Economou. 432 U.S. 478, 508-17 (1978)). The report also finds that Muhammad has failed to establish deprivation of a liberty interest without sufficient due process protections.

A brief review of Muhammad's allegations in the complaint and in his objections reflects that the report's findings and recommendations are consistent with the record and applicable law. Hearing Officer Counts relied on the hearing officer's report in finding Muhammad guilty of disobeying a direct order, and did not consider the surveillance video relevant, because it did not include audio; Counts penalized Muhammad with temporary loss of telephone privileges. In finding Muhammad guilty of fighting, Counts relied on Muhammad's hearing testimony about grabbing Bratcher's leg rather than removing himself from the incident;[6] in light of this evidence, Counts did not review the video; she penalized Muhammad with a $12.00 fine. Because Counts had some evidence in the record to support her disciplinary findings, Muhammad has no viable due process claim of evidentiary insufficiency. See Superintendent Mass. Corr. Inst, at Wabole v. Hill. 472 U.S. 445, 454 (1985). Finding no merit to Muhammad's objections, the court will overrule them and adopt the report as to Claim 4.

On Claim 5, the report recommends granting summary judgment for all defendants except Officer Coyle, who allegedly did not intervene to stop Inmate Bratcher's assault on Muhammad.[7] The report recommends summary judgment for Bishop, because Coyle allegedly stopped him from intervening, and for Defendant Vaughn, the control booth officer, who reasonably fired a warning shot rather than directing the shot toward Bratcher. Muhammad objects to this recommended disposition.

The amended complaint alleges that Bratcher attacked Muhammad without warning, punching him three times-in the forehead, chin, and chest, after which Muhammad "caught [Bratcher's] leg mid air and was about to drive him to the ground" when K-9 officers arrived, ordered both inmates to the ground, and they complied. (Amend. Compl., ECF 13-4, at 1.) According to Muhammad's allegations and submissions, Vaughn was watching another area of the prison until Bishop notified him of Bratcher's attack; once notified, Vaughn gave a verbal order for the inmates to stop fighting, and fired his warning shot.[8] The K-9 officers arrived within 33 seconds of the first announcement of the attack. (See PL Resp. Ex., ECF No. 159-at 2-)

In his objections, Muhammad argues that a more attentive Vaughn could have fired his warning shot sooner and that Bishop could have intervened with pepper spray even after Coyle initially stopped him from moving toward the altercation. The allegations about the delay of Vaughn's shot supports, at most, a claim of negligence, rather than the deliberate indifference necessary to support a § 1983 claim for failure to intervene. See Makdessi v. Fields, 789 F.3d 126, 133 (4th Cir. 2015) (finding that deliberate indifference entails '"more than mere negligence, ' but 'less than acts or omissions [done] for the very purpose of causing harm ...


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