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Goins v. L. Fleming

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

September 12, 2017

CHAD E. GOINS, Plaintiff,
L. FLEMING, et al., Defendants.

          Chad E. Goins, Pro Se Plaintiff;

          Laura H. Cahill, Office of the Attorney General, Richmond, Virginia, for Defendants.


          James P. Jones United States District Judge

         The plaintiff, Chad E. Goins, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se, filed this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc to 2000cc-5. Goins asserts that the defendant prison officials are not adequately accommodating his religious practices in several respects. After review of the record, I conclude that the defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment must be granted in part and denied in part.


         Goins is serving a Virginia prison sentence and has been confined at Wallens Ridge State Prison (“Wallens Ridge”) since November 2013, in the custody of the Virginia Department of Corrections (“VDOC”). Goins states that he is Sunni Muslim and must eat a diet and worship in a manner, individually and in group worship services, consistent with the Sunni beliefs.

         In his Complaint, Goins sues Henry Ponton, VDOC Regional Administrator; L. Fleming[1] and Combs, Warden and Assistant Warden of Wallens Ridge; and the following individuals who also work at Wallens Ridge: Cope, a captain; Stallard, a unit manager; Coleman, a lieutenant; M. Hensley, who handles grievances; B. Ravizee, the ombudsman; M. Brogles, a kitchen supervisor; and Mitchell, a chaplain. Liberally construed, Goins'ss Complaint claims that the defendants' policies and practices burden his religious practices in the following respects: (1) The Common Fare Program prevents Goins from consuming certain foods allowed by his religious beliefs, thereby forcing him to comply with others' religious dietary beliefs; (2) Goins cannot pray or wear his kufi (religious head covering) during pod recreation; (3) The defendants do not provide an in room officer at all times during Sunni group religious services; (4) Dividing the Sunni Muslim services has left Goins'ss group with no qualified religious teacher; (5) Goins cannot access a bathroom during his religious services, while inmates of other religions meet for group services in the gym where they have access to a bathroom. Goins contends that the defendants' actions have violated his rights under RLUIPA and the First, Eighth, and/or Fourteenth Amendments. He also asserts supplemental state law claims of negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress.[2] For these alleged violations, Goins seeks monetary, declaratory, and injunctive relief.

         The defendants move for summary judgment on the ground of qualified immunity and on the merits of Goins's claims. They offer affidavits from Fleming and Combs and copies of prison policies regarding the challenged religious accommodations. Goins has responded to the defendants' motion, making it ripe for disposition. Because Goins's claims arise from three different sets of facts, I will address the claims in three groups.


         A. Initial Matters.

         Some of Goins's claims for monetary damages fail at the outset. The defendants are protected by immunity against damage claims for actions taken in their official capacities. See Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58 (1989). Moreover, monetary damages are not available under RLUIPA for any of the defendants' alleged actions. See, e.g., Sossamon v. Texas, 563 U.S. 277, 285- 86 (2011) (finding damages not recoverable against defendants in their official capacities under RLUIPA); Rendelman v. Rouse, 569 F.3d 182, 188-89 (4th Cir. 2009) (finding no RLUIPA claim for damages available against defendants in their individual capacities).[3] Therefore, I will grant summary judgment for the defendants on all claims for monetary damages against the defendants in their official capacities and all claims for monetary damages under RLUIPA.

         B. Religious Diet.

         1. Factual Allegations.

         Wallens Ridge, like many other VDOC facilities, offers the Common Fare diet to inmates whose religious dietary beliefs cannot be met by the VDOC's master menu. The Common Fare menus feature protein items that are considered Kosher and do not contain any pork or pork derivatives prohibited by Islamic halal dietary rules. These menus also provide participants with fresh, uncooked fruits and vegetables in keeping with halal rules.

         Providing an inmate with the specialized Common Fare meals subjects the institution to additional financial costs and administrative burdens that it would not incur when providing that inmate with a regular diet. Consequently, VDOC policy requires inmates to demonstrate their religious sincerity to be approved to receive Common Fare meals and to sign a Common Fare Agreement by which they commit to comply with the terms of participation as a condition to receiving such meals. An inmate who violates a term of the agreement may be temporarily suspended from the diet, and repeated violations can lead to removal from the Common Fare program. Actions that violate the Common Fare Agreement are stated in the document itself and include: eating, trading, or possessing unauthorized food items from the regular meal line; giving away or trading a Common Fare food item; and purchasing or eating food items from the commissary that are inconsistent with the dietary requirements of the Common Fare program. Commissary items that violate Common Fare are clearly identified as such.

         Goins signed a Common Fare Agreement on March 13, 2015, that stated, among other things, “This program provides me with an appropriate religious diet that meets or exceeds minimum daily nutritional requirements.” Fleming Aff. Enclosure B, ECF No. 31-1. The Agreement also advised Goins that eating food items inconsistent with Common Fare dietary requirements or from the regular menu would violate the agreement and result in suspension of his religious meals.

         In Claim (1) of the Complaint, Goins admits that the Common Fare menu is the only menu option available to him at Wallens Ridge that excludes the pork and pork byproducts that his Sunni beliefs forbid him to eat. Goins complains, however, that he is forbidden by Allah from making foods unlawful that are not forbidden to Muslims. As specific examples, Goins states that his Sunni beliefs do not prohibit him from eating dairy and meat together or from eating the cheese and pasta products he can buy from the commissary. If he eats these food items, however, he violates the Common Fare Agreement and can be suspended from this menu option. Goins contends that by prohibiting him from eating foods that are not unlawful for Sunnis to eat, the VDOC policy forces him to comply with another religion's dietary restrictions and prevents him from freely exercising his own religious beliefs.

         2. RLUIPA and the First Amendment.

         To survive the defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment on any of his claims, Goins must present material disputed fact(s) that would persuade a jury to rule in his favor.[4] I find no such disputed fact material to his dietary claims under RLUIPA or the First Amendment.

         The First Amendment prohibits the government from imposing “a substantial burden” on an inmate's ability to exercise his religion unless the government can demonstrate an appropriate reason for the burden. Lovelace v. Lee, 472 F.3d 174, 198-99, n.8 (4th Cir. 2006). Under RLUIPA, “when a prison substantially burdens an inmate's exercise of religion, the prison must demonstrate that imposing the burden serves a compelling government interest and does so by the least restrictive means.” Id. at 182. For either a First Amendment or a RLUIPA claim, then, the inmate “bears the initial burden to demonstrate that the prison's policy exacts a substantial burden on religious exercise.” Incumaa v. Stirling, 791 F.3d 517, 525 (4th Cir. 2016). “[A] substantial burden on religious exercise occurs when a state or local government, through act or omission, ‘put[s] substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs.'” Lovelace, 472 F.3d at 187 (RLUIPA context) (quoting Thomas v. Review Bd. of Ind. Emp't Sec. Div., 450 U.S. 707, 718 (1981)) (First Amendment context).

         Stated simply, the established facts in this case do not show that the challenged policy places any substantial burden on Goins's beliefs. The undisputed evidence establishes that Goins can consume his Common Fare meals without violating his Sunni dietary requirements to avoid pork and that these meals meet or exceed his nutritional needs. Goins presents no evidence that his inability to consume food items that violate the terms of his Common Fare Agreement puts substantial pressure on him to violate any dietary mandate of his Sunni beliefs. At the most, this restriction is an inconvenience or difficulty, not sufficient to constitute a triable fact showing a substantial burden on his religious exercise. See Marron v. Miller, No. 7:13CV00338, 2014 WL 2879745, at *2 (W.D. Va. June 24, 2014) (“No substantial burden occurs if the government action merely makes the ‘religious exercise more expensive or difficult' or inconvenient, but does not pressure the adherent to violate his or her religious beliefs or abandon one of the precepts of his or her religion.”) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         3. Other constitutional claims.

         I also conclude that Goins has not stated any actionable claim under the Eighth Amendment or the Equal Protection Clause regarding his religious diet. He does not state facts showing that the Common Fare program deprives him of the nutrition he needs to live or that it has caused him any significant harm. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994) (holding that Eighth Amendment claim requires showing of deprivation of minimal necessities of life): Shakka v. Smith, 71 F.3d 162, 166 (4th Cir. 1995) (requiring showing that challenged condition caused, or is likely to cause, “significant physical or emotional harm, or a grave risk of such harm”). Goins also states no facts showing that this diet program treats him differently from other similarly situationed inmates because of intentional discrimination based on his religious views. Veney v. Wyche, 293 F.3d 726, 730 (4th Cir. 2002) (stating standard for equal protection claim in prison context).

         For the stated reasons, I conclude that all of the defendants are entitled to summary judgment on Goins's constitutional and RLUIPA challenges in Claim (1) concerning the Common Fare program. Consequently, I decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over any related claim Goins may be attempting to raise ...

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