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Branham v. Parker

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

March 28, 2016

MAJOR PARKER, et al, Defendants.


By: Hon. Jackson L. Kiser Senior United States District Judge

Wilby James Branham, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se, filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The two remaining defendants, Administrator Trent and Major Parker of the Amherst County Detention Center ("Jail"), filed a motion to dismiss, and Plaintiff responded, making the matter ripe for disposition. After reviewing Plaintiffs submissions, I grant in part and deny in part the motion to dismiss and direct defendants to file a motion for summary judgment.


Plaintiff is a Muslim who alleges his personal faith requires him to use a "prayer rug." Plaintiff complaints that on March 6, 2015, the Jail's "Administration" offered Plaintiff an extra towel to use as a prayer rug. Plaintiff refused because other inmates had used the towel at an unspecified time to dry their bodies, and thus, the towel was "unclean" for Plaintiffs religious purposes. Plaintiff further explains, "[M]y God is worth more than a used towel, " and, "I deserve to be able to worship my God right." A response to one of Plaintiff s inmate request forms suggests that official policy at the Jail prohibits prayer rugs. Plaintiff suggests that many other correctional facilities in Virginia provide prayer rugs instead of previously-used towels for inmates. Plaintiff has since been transferred from the Jail to a state correctional facility.


I must grant a defendant's motion to dismiss if I determine that the complaint fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted. Resolving this question under the familiar standard for a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) requires me to accept Plaintiffs factual allegations as true.[1] Furthermore, a complaint needs "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief and sufficient "[f]actual allegations ... to raise a right to relief above the speculative level...." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (internal quotation marks omitted). Plaintiff must "allege facts sufficient to state all the elements of [the] claim." Bass v. E.I. Dupont de Nemours & Co., 324 F.3d 761, 765 (4th Cir. 2003). Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) is appropriate when, after accepting as true the well-pleaded facts in the complaint and viewing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, a court finds with certainty that a plaintiff would not be entitled to relief under any state of facts which could be proved in support of the plaintiffs claim. Brooks v. City of Winston-Salem. N. C. 85 F.3d 178, 181 (4th Cir. 1996).


Defendants argue that Plaintiff failed to exhaust available administrative remedies because he noted on the complaint that he did not appeal the denied grievance. See, e.g., 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). Plaintiff averred on his verified statement that he exhausted all available administrative remedies at the facility, and he attached a grievance form as proof.[2] Notably, defendants have not yet established that an appeal was actually required pursuant to any grievance policy. See, e.g., Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 216 (2007); Anderson v. XYZ Corr. Health Servs., Inc.. 407 F.3d 674, 681 (4th Cir. 2005). Accordingly, I may not dismiss the complaint at this time based on exhaustion of administrative remedies.


Citing 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e), defendants next argue that the complaint should be dismissed because injunctive relief is moot and damages are precluded for a lack of a physical injury. However, Plaintiff could be entitled to declaratory relief, nominal damages, or punitive damages even if, arguendo, compensatory damages and injunctive relief are precluded. See, e.g., Incumaa v. Ozmint 507 F.3d 281, 286-87 (4th Cir. 2007); Searles v. Van Bebber, 251 F.3d 869, 879 (10th Cir. 2001); see also Rowe v. Shake. 196 F.3d 778, 781-82 (7th Cir. 1999). Accordingly, I do not dismiss the complaint based on the types of remedies potentially available to Plaintiff.


Defendants further argue that the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. I liberally construe two challenges from the complaint, both arising from the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc, et seq.: (1) the practice of offering a previously-used towel as an alternative to a prohibited prayer rug, and (2) the Jail policy that prohibits prayer rugs.

RLUIPA, in relevant part, provides that no government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of an inmate unless the government demonstrates that the burden furthers a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.[3] 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-l(a). In contrast, the First Amendment prohibits prison regulations from infringing an inmate's religious expression unless those regulations are reasonably related to legitimate penological interests. O'Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 349 (1987); Turner v Saflev. 482 U.S. 78, 86-89 (1987).

The pro se complaint and attachments sufficiently allege violations of RLUIPA and the First Amendment. The complaint sufficiently states Plaintiffs religious need to pray to his god on a "clean" surface, whether called a "towel" or a "prayer rug, " instead of an "unclean" surface like the floor or a towel previously used to dry numerous inmates' bodies. The complaint also states how Plaintiff sought a religious accommodation from Jail staff and that Jail staff denied the request pursuant to a Jail policy that prohibits prayer rugs. The complaint further states that prayer rugs are routinely accommo Dated: various correctional facilities in Virginia. Liberally construing Plaintiffs submissions, Plaintiff alleges the personal involvement of the defendants: Major Parker denied Plaintiffs request by citing policy, and Administrator Trent likely affected that ...

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