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Ferguson-El v. Horton

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

November 30, 2016

J. HORTON, et al., Defendants.


          Hon. Michael F. Urbanski United States District Judge

         Leon Ferguson-El, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se, filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff names three staff of the River North Correctional Center as defendants: J. Horton and Burnette, who are Institutional Investigators, and T. Dowell, an Institutional Program Manager. Plaintiff argues that Defendants violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-l(a), et seg.. Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, to which Plaintiff responded, making the matter ripe for disposition. After reviewing the record, the court grants Defendants' motion for summary judgment.


         On February 25, 2015, Plaintiff printed a "commercial writ of habeas corpus" from his prison law library account to challenge a state court criminal conviction. Staff discovered the document and associated it with the prison security threat group "Sovereign Citizens, " whose adherents believe that they do not have to recognize federal, state, or local laws, policies, or regulations because governments in the United States operate beyond their legal jurisdiction. Staff confiscated and forwarded the document to an institutional investigator, who determined that it was related to Sovereign Citizens. Defendant Dowell avers that she did not personally confiscate the commercial writ of habeas corpus.[1]

         On May 29, 2015, defendant Horton was informed that Plaintiff was telling inmates during a meeting for Moorish Science Temple of America ("MSTA") adherents to "buck the system" and that "the government, police, and other authorities had no jurisdictional authority or control over them." Staff asked Horton to speak with Plaintiff about the statements because they were similar to Sovereign Citizen ideology.

         Plaintiff alleges he told the attending MSTA adherents that the MTSA's Koran says, "[T]hy equals have agreed to raise to sovereign power and set as a ruler over themselves." Plaintiff also allegedly said MSTA adherents should respect the American flag as a flag of a sovereign nation and "that we Moors have an independent sovereign nation with our own flag, which is the Red flag with a five pointed green star in the center in which two distinct jurisdiction[s] exist within this country."

         Horton informed Plaintiff during the religious meeting that staff considered Plaintiff to be a Sovereign Citizen and that he would be charged with inciting a demonstration and placed into segregation if he did not cease from teaching Sovereign Citizen ideology to MSTA attendees. Plaintiff denied to defendants that he made such statements. Plaintiff was allowed to return to the service, he continued his religious teaching, and he did not mention Sovereign Citizen ideology again. However, Plaintiff now fears being charged and placed in segregation whenever he preaches about MSTA sovereignty.

         Horton avers he did not instruct Plaintiff to not teach MSTA or other religious beliefs. Rather, Horton instructed Plaintiff to not teach Sovereign Citizen ideology by instructing offenders to "buck the system" or disregard prison rules or staff.[2] Horton notes that the VDOC classifies Plaintiff as a Sovereign Citizen because of the number of times he has been caught with material related to Sovereign Citizen ideology.

         Plaintiff claims that Horton and Burnette suppressed his right to practice his religion in violation of the First Amendment and RLUIPA. Plaintiff also claims that Do well denied him access to the courts and censored his legal materials in violation of the First Amendment.


         Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that they are entitled to qualified immunity. Qualified immunity permits "government officials performing discretionary functions ... [to be] shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald. 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). Once a defendant raises the qualified immunity defense, a plaintiff bears the burden to show that a defendant's conduct violated the plaintiffs right. Bryant v. Muth. 994 F.2d 1082, 1086 (4th Cir. 1993).

         A party is entitled to summary judgment if the pleadings, disclosed materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Material facts are those necessary to establish the elements of a party's cause of action. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A genuine dispute of material fact exists if, in viewing the record and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, a reasonable fact-finder could return a verdict for the non-movant. Id. The moving party has the burden of showing - "that is, pointing out to the district court - that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). If the movant satisfies this burden, then the non-movant must set forth specific facts that demonstrate the existence of a genuine dispute of fact for trial. Id. at 322-24. A party is entitled to summary judgment if the record as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find in favor of the non-movant. Williams v. Griffin, 952 F.2d 820, 823 (4th Cir. 1991). "Mere unsupported speculation ... is not enough to defeat a summary judgment motion." Ennis v. Nat'l Ass'n of Bus. & Educ. Radio, Inc., 53 F.3d 55, 62 (4th Cir. 1995). A plaintiff cannot use a response to a motion for summary judgment to amend or correct a complaint challenged by the motion for summary judgment. Cloaninger v. McDevitt, 555 F.3d 324, 336 (4th Cir. 2009).


         Inmates have a constitutional right to reasonable access to courts to challenge their convictions or vindicate their constitutional rights. See Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 838 (1977). The right of reasonable access to courts "is ancillary to the underlying claim, without which a plaintiff cannot have suffered injury by being shut out of court." Christopher v. Harbury,536 U.S. 403, 415 (2002). Accordingly, in order to plead a backward looking denial of reasonable access to courts claim, a plaintiff must specifically identify a non-frivolous legal claim that a defendant's actions prevented him from litigating. Id. at 415-16; Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 353 n.3 (1996). This requirement means the "inmate must come forward with something more than vague and conclusory allegations of inconvenience or delay in his instigation or prosecution of legal actions.... The fact that an inmate may not be able to litigate in exactly the manner he desires is not sufficient to demonstrate the actual ...

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