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Tehuti v. Robinson

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

March 29, 2019

HU TEHUTI, Plaintiff,
A. DAVID ROBINSON, ET AL., Defendants.


          Hon. Glen E. Conrad Senior United States District Judge

         This prisoner civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2OOOcc to 2000cc-5, is now before the court on cross motions for summary judgment. The plaintiff, Hu Tehuti, proceeding pro se, has made numerous requests to have the African American Church ("AAC") recognized by the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) as a religious faith system. His claim before the court is for declaratory and injunctive relief to achieve this goal and have prison officials accommodate AAC religious practices, particularly to conduct AAC congregational services every Saturday and during AAC holy days in March and December.[1] After review of the record, the court concludes that the motions for summary judgment must be denied.

         I. Background

         When Tehuti filed this lawsuit in March 2017, he was incarcerated at River North Correctional Center ("River North") and had been since June 9, 2015. Tehuti describes himself as a Black African American who follows "The Maat (Religion)," believes in "The Creator Ra (Amen-Ra)," and "confesses a belief that all Black People(s) are descendants of Noah's Black son Ham in the Holy Bible, Genesis 6:10." Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. 3, ECF 29-1. He believes that the AAC "is a covenant community established by God Amen-Ra, Who is the God of Ham and for Ham's Black descendants." Ick He believes that AAC members must "gather together on Saturday and other religious days for AAC worship services, prayers, study groups, and religious activities," namely, during "the First Fruit Harvest," also known as Kwanza, from December 26 through January 1, and during "Hebsed," from March 1 through March 3l.[2] Id., at 4-5. Tehuti explains that "Hebsed (or Sed) is the month that revelation of the Book, Holy Maat was revealed to Hu Tehuti." Id. at 5.

         At River North, Tehuti and other inmates asked to be permitted to hold AAC group services every week, as other religious groups did. Officials refused this request, because the VDOC had not recognized the AAC as a religion for which prison officials must provide accommodations.

         In the past, Tehuti has filed requests for AAC recognition through the VDOC's Faith Review Committee ("FRC") in the past that were denied on July 22, 2011, March 27, 2013, and July 13, 2016. He complains that the FRC delayed processing the requests, did not allow him to ask and answer questions to aid in their decision, and did not provide detailed reasons for denying his requests so he could pursue a meaningful appeal. Tehuti complained that before denying his request for approval of his religion, the VDOC should provide him with a hearing before the Institutional Classification Authority ("ICA"), as procedure requires for approval or denial of an inmate's request for the Common Fare religious diet.

         After careful consideration of Tehuti's submissions, the court concludes that his remaining § 1983 claims are that (1) the defendants have denied him free exercise of his AAC belief that he must participate in congregational religious services with other AAC adherents every week and during Hebda and Kwanza, in violation of the First Amendment and RLUIPA; and (2) the VDOC procedure for requesting approval of a religion for accommodation of such practices provides inadequate procedural protections, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The defendants are A. David Robinson, VDOC Chief of Operations; Elam, a VDOC Regional Administrator; the FRC; the VDOC; and Barry Kanode, J. Morrison, Thersea Dowell, John Walrath, and Andy Kilbourne, who were employees at River North.[3] Importantly, Tehuti seeks only declaratory and injunctive relief in this case-to have the AAC approved for religious accommodation, such as the group worship services he requested at River North.

         II. Discussion.

         A. Mootness

         As an initial matter, Tehuti's claims against the River North defendants must be dismissed as moot, because he is no longer confined at that facility.

The exercise of judicial power under Art. Ill. of the Constitution depends on the existence of a case or controversy. . . . [A] federal court has neither the power to render advisory opinions nor to decide questions that cannot affect the rights of litigants in the case before them. . . . The rule in federal cases is that an actual controversy must be extant at all stages of review, not merely at the time the complaint is filed.

Preiser v. Newkirk, 422 U.S. 395, 401 (1975).[4] [A] prisoner's transfer or release from a particular prison moots his claims for injunctive ... relief with respect to his incarceration there." Rendelman v. Rouse, 569 F.3d 182, 186 (4th Cir. 2009). Similarly, a prisoner's transfer moots his claims for declaratory relief about conditions at that facility. Preiser, 422 U.S. at 402-403.

         Tehuti was transferred away from River North on December 13, 2017, and is now confined at Green Rock Correctional Center. The River North defendants-Kanode, Morrison, Dowell, Walrath, and Kilbourne-can no longer be directed to provide him the religious accommodations that he seeks, even if the court were to decide that he is entitled to them. ...

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