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Sirleaf v. Pearson

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

February 16, 2017

MOMOLU V.S. SIRLEAF, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
EDDIE PEARSON, et al, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          M. Hannah Laucfi United States District Judge.

         Momolu V.S. Sirleaf, Jr., a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, filed this civil action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[1] In his Complaint, Sirleaf argues that, during his incarceration at the Greensville Correctional Center ("GCC"), Defendants[2] have violated his right to practice his religion as a member of "the Jewish race and... the Jewish religion." (Compl. ¶¶ 2, 12 ECF No. I.)[3] The Court construes Sirleaf to raise the following claims for relief:

Claim One: Defendants placed a substantial burden on Sirleaf s exercise of his religion in violation of (a) the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA")[4] and (b) the First Amendment[5] right to free exercise of his religion by placing Sirleaf s housing unit on lockdown for a bi-annual shakedown, which prevented Sirleaf from celebrating Rosh Hashanah in September 2014. (Id. ¶¶ 5-6, 12.)[6]
Claim Two: Defendants violated Sirleaf s Fourteenth Amendment[7] right to equal protection of the law by "allow[ing] the KAIROS retreat to be held, but den[ying] the scheduled Jewish holy day Rosh Hashanah to be held on the 2d and last day" in September 2014. (Id. ¶ 13.)

         The matter is now before the Court on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 23.) Despite providing Sirleaf with appropriate Roseboro[8]notice, Sirleaf has not responded. This matter is ripe for judgment. For the reasons stated below, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment will be GRANTED.

         I. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment under Rule 56 is appropriate only when the Court, viewing the record as a whole and in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, determines that there exists no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-24 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-50 (1986). "A fact is material if the existence or non-existence thereof could lead a jury to different resolutions of the case." Thomas v. FTS USA, LLC, No. 3:13cv825, October 2014 (id. End. B); (4) a copy of a September 21, 2014 Incident Report regarding GCC Cluster S3 (id. End. C); and, (5) a copy of the 2014 calendar for KAIROS at GCC (id End. D).

         While Sirleaf did not respond to the Motion for Summary Judgment, he has sworn to the contents of the Complaint under penalty of perjury. (Compl. 5.) Sirleaf has also submitted a Declaration of Religious Beliefs, which sets forth an overview of his "sincerely held religious beliefs." (ECF No. 4, at 1.) Because this document makes no reference to Rosh Hashanah, the Court has not considered it for purposes of summary judgment.

         In light of the foregoing submissions, the following facts are established for the Motion for Summary Judgment. The Court draws all permissible inferences in favor of Sirleaf.

         II. Pertinent Facts

         Under Virginia Department of Corrections' ("VDOC") guidelines, all institutions that are classified as Security Level 3, such as GCC, must "complete a facility lockdown search at least twice per year." (Jarratt Aff. ¶ 4.) GCC "consists of three Clusters, with each cluster being the approximate size of a normal correctional facility." (Id.) Therefore, each cluster conducts a shakedown twice per year. (Id.)

         During a shakedown, "all activities of the Cluster are locked down and cancelled and offenders are restricted to their cell[s]." (Id.) Offenders continue to receive basic necessities such as food, hygiene, and medical services. (Id. ¶¶ 4, 5.) "[M]ost programs and services are severely curtailed and offenders are not allowed out-of-cell activities." (Id. ¶ 4.) Religious services are suspended, but offenders are permitted to practice their faith inside their cells. (Id. ¶ 5.) During shakedowns, "regular functions and activities must be suspended in order to accomplish priority security measures, including searches for contraband." (Id.) "Of paramount importance during a lockdown is the preservation of security and maintaining the safety and welfare of all offenders and staff." (Id.)

         Assistant Warden Jarratt "schedule[s] institutional lockdowns at the beginning of each year." (Id. ¶ 6.) When scheduling lockdowns, he "make[s] every effort to avoid known major holidays and observances. However, it would be essentially impossible to accommodate every religious holiday observed by offenders at" GCC. (Id.) In September 2014, the shakedown of Cluster S3 was scheduled to occur September 21-26, 2014. (Id. End. A.) A search of Housing Unit 7 in Cluster S3, to which Sirleaf was assigned, was scheduled for September 22-23, 2014. (Id. ¶ 6; id End. A.)

         On September 4, 2014, an Institutional Chaplain at GCC sent to the Institutional Programs Manager a memorandum that provided guidance as to when the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkoth would be observed in 2014. (Id. End. B, at 1.) According to the memorandum, adherents of the Messianic Jewish and House of Yahweh faiths could observe Rosh Hashanah from sundown on September 25, 2014, through sundown on September 26, 2014. (Id. at 2.) No special meals were authorized, but group Rosh Hashanah services for offenders in Cluster S3 were scheduled to occur on September 26, 2014. (Id.) The Institutional Programs Manager approved the memorandum on September 23, 2014. (Id. at 1.)

         The lockdown of Cluster S3 began at 10:45 a.m. on September 21, 2014. (Jarratt Aff. ¶ 9.) "Although offender Sirleaf was unable to participate in a group service during the lockdown, he was allowed to observe Rosh Hashanah in his cell." (Id. ¶ 8.) The shakedown of Cluster S3 was completed on September 25, 2014. (Id. End. C, at 1.) During the shakedown, staff confiscated five weapons, as well as suspected marijuana and heroin. (Id.) Accordingly, Cluster S3 was placed on modified lockdown "beginning with the breakfast meal on Friday, September 26, 2014 and return[ed] to normal operations on Saturday, September 27, 2014." (Id.) On September 27, 2014, after the modified lockdown concluded, offenders in Cluster S3 who adhere to the KAIROS faith were able to meet for the scheduled reunion. (Jarratt Aff. ¶ 11; see also Id. Encl. D.)[9]

         Sirleaf requested that GCC provide "an alternative day of congregational observance for Rosh Hashanah." (Compl. ¶ 8.) However, the request was denied. (Id.)[10]The Institutional Chaplain had advised staff at GCC that "Jewish tenets do not allow its followers to change the Rosh Hashanah observance." (Jarratt Aff. ¶ 10.)

         III. RLUIPA and Free Exercise Claims

         A. RLUIPA

         RLUIPA provides, in pertinent part, that:

         No government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution . . . unless the government ...


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