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Gentry v. Virginia Department of Corrections

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

May 29, 2019

Devion Gentry, Plaintiff,
v.
Virginia Department of Corrections, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Liam O'Grady, United States District Judge

         Devion Gentry, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se, has filed a complaint, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), alleging that his rights were violated when officers at the Nottoway Correctional Center forcibly shaved his beard. Dkt. No. 1. Defendants have filed a Second Motion for Summary Judgment, along with a supporting brief, exhibits, and the notice required by Roseboro v. Garrison, 528 F.2d 309 (4th Cir. 1975) and Local Rule 7K. Dkt. Nos. 27-29. Plaintiff filed an unverified general objection to defendants' motion, however, his complaint is verified.[1] Dkt. Nos. 1, 35. For the following reasons, defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment will be granted and this matter will be dismissed.

         I.

         The record on summary judgment establishes the following. On July 7, 2016, plaintiff was transferred into Virginia Department of Corrections ("VDOC") custody and the intake process took place at Nottoway Correctional Center ("NCC"). Defs.' MSJ, Bateman Aff. ¶ 4. At the time of intake into VDOC, every inmate is given an order to comply with VDOC Operating Procedure ("VDOC OP") 864.1[2] Id. Robinson Aff. ¶ 11. Prior to December 2016, this meant that all inmates were treated alike, regardless of their religious affiliation or personal preference, and reasonable force was authorized to the extent necessary to bring inmates into compliance with VDOC OP 864.1. Compl. ¶¶ 18, 20; Defs.' MSJ, Robinson Aff. ¶ 12. As of December 28, 2016, inmates who refuse to comply with the grooming policy for religious reasons are treated like any other inmate who refuses to comply with the grooming policy. Defs.' MSJ, Robinson Aff. ¶ 13, Enc. C. In other words, force is no longer used to bring them into compliance. Id.

         During the intake process on July 7, 2016, plaintiff refused to have his beard shaved for religious reasons. Compl. ¶ 17. VDOC employees tried to reason with plaintiff, but he told them that they were trying to humiliate him and that he wanted to be placed in segregation instead. Id. ¶¶ 18, 20-23. Specifically, plaintiff states he could have been placed in the VHU. Id. ¶ 79. Instead, plaintiff was told that he would not be placed in segregation without first complying with VDOC OP 864.1. Id. ¶¶ 18, 20.

         When it became evident that plaintiff was not going to change his mind, Major Bateman authorized the use of the minimum amount of force necessary to bring plaintiff into compliance with VDOC OP 864.1. Id. ¶¶ 24-25; Defs.' MSJ, Bateman Aff.¶ 6. Sergeant Swann entered plaintiffs cell with a "[taser] shield" which he used to push plaintiff to the ground, although he never activated the shield's electric current.[3] Compl. ¶ 26-27; Defs.' MSJ, Bateman Aff. End. A. Once on the ground, Sergeant Swann twisted plaintiffs right hand behind plaintiffs back, Lieutenant Williams twisted plaintiffs left arm behind plaintiffs back, and they handcuffed plaintiff and applied leg irons. Compl. ¶¶ 29-31. Plaintiff peacefully resisted. Id. ¶80. Plaintiff was escorted 25 feet to the barber chair where Sergeant Swann placed his knee on plaintiffs handcuffs with his full body weight and held plaintiffs head. Id. ¶ 34; Defs.' MSJ, Bateman Aff. ¶ 6. Plaintiffs legs were past the foot rest of the chair and his arms were behind the back of the chair. Compl. ¶ 33. Plaintiff continued to resist staff. Defs.' MSJ, Bateman Aff. ¶ 6, End. A. While Sergeant Swann forced plaintiffs head into different positions, Sergeant Williams shaved plaintiffs beard to 1/2 inch length. Compl. ¶¶ 35-37; Defs.' MSJ, Bateman Aff. ¶ 6, End. A. Medical staff then arrived to evaluate plaintiff, however, he was not able to answer at first because Sergeant Swann had his knee on plaintiffs cuffed wrists. Compl. ¶ 39. Once Sergeant Swann moved, plaintiff stated he did not think he was injured, however, the medical staff noted an abrasion to his left wrist due to his resisting staff, and a 1/2 inch laceration on his right forearm. Id. ¶ 40; Defs.' MSJ, Bateman Aff. ¶ 7, Enc. A. Plaintiffs picture was taken, and then he was escorted to segregation, which was unnecessary because his beard had been trimmed, and he was uncuffed. Compl. ¶¶ 42, 47, 76.

         As of June 14, 2017, other inmates housed in the VHU, such as those from the Virgin Islands, were not forced to cut their hair upon intake into VDOC. Id. ¶ 55. In fact, of the thirty-eight inmates in the VHU as of June 14, 2017, only the four other inmates who refused to cut their hair for religious reasons were forced to comply with VDOC OP 864.1.[4] Id. ¶¶ 56, 69. There is no reason for male inmates to have their hair length restricted to one inch and their beard length restricted to 1/2 inch because (1) inmates' hair is searched no matter its length; (2) male inmates can grow mustaches longer than 1/2 inch in length; and (3) female inmates are allowed to have hair longer than one inch. Id. § 71-74.

         II.

         "The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the burden of proving that judgment on the pleadings is appropriate. See Celotex Corp. v. Citrate, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (moving party bears the burden of persuasion on all relevant issues). To meet that burden, the moving party must demonstrate that no genuine issues of material fact are present for resolution. Id. at 322. Once a moving party has met its burden to show that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the burden then shifts to the non-moving party to point out the specific facts which create disputed factual issues. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         In evaluating a motion for summary judgment, a district court should consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences from those facts in favor of that party. United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962). Those facts which the moving party bears the burden of proving are facts which are material. "[T]he substantive law will identify which facts are material. Only disputes over facts which might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. An issue of material fact is genuine when, "the evidence... create[s] [a] fair doubt; wholly speculative assertions will not suffice." Ross v. Communications Satellite Corp., 759 F.2d 355, 364 (4th Cir. 1985). Thus, summary judgment is appropriate only where no material facts are genuinely disputed, and the evidence as a whole could not lead a rational fact finder to rule for the non-moving party. Matsushita Electrical Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

         III.

         A. First Amendment and RLUIPA Claims

          Plaintiff first claims that defendants violated his rights under the First Amendment and RLUIPA when they forced him to shave his beard because plaintiff grew his beard for religious reasons. Thus, plaintiff claims, defendants did not allow him to practice his religion and they did not use the least restrictive means to further a compelling government interest.

         i. RLUIPA

         The Fourth Circuit has held that plaintiffs cannot recover damages under RLUIPA against defendants when sued in their official capacity. Madison v. Virginia, 474 F.3d 118 (4th Cir. 2006) (Madison 10. The Fourth Circuit also recently held that "when invoked as a spending clause statute, RLUIPA does not authorize a claim for money damages against an official sued in her individual capacity." Rendelman v. Rouse, 569 F.3d 182, 184.

         Congress passed RLUIPA "by relying on its Spending and Commerce Clause powers ...." Madison v. Riter, 355 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2003). Plaintiff does not specify in his complaint whether he invokes RLUIPA under the Spending Clause or the Commerce Clause; however, it is clear that "[t]he Virginia Department of Corrections is a state agency that receives federal financial assistance." Madison II, 474 F.3d at 124. Accordingly, it can reasonably be inferred that plaintiff invoked RLUIPA pursuant to the Spending Clause. See Rendelman, 569 F.3d 182; see also Stewart v. Beach, 701 F.3d 1322 (10th Cir. 2012) (analyzing the constitutionality of RLUIPA as an exercise of the Spending Clause as related to a prisoner's claim); Nelson v. Miller, 570 F.3d 868 (7th Cir. 2009) (same); Van Wvhe v. Reisch, 581 F.3d 639 (8th Cir. 2009) (same); Bennine v. Georgia, 391 F.3d 1299 (11th Cir. 2004) (same). Therefore, plaintiff is not entitled to recover monetary damages from defendants in either their individual or official capacities.

         The only injunctive relief plaintiff seeks in his complaint is "a preliminary and permanent injunction ordering VDOC to send [plaintiff) to where [he] can practice [his] religion fully and grow [his] beard." Specifically, plaintiff asks to be transferred to "Delaware State Prisons, North Carolina State Prisons, or [to federal custody]." Because plaintiff is in VDOC custody, it is reasonable to infer that he is in custody pursuant to a Virginia state court conviction and cannot be transferred out of VDOC custody as requested. In addition, plaintiff is currently in a facility where is he able to fully grow his beard, making his request for injunctive relief moot. For the foregoing reasons, plaintiffs RLUIPA claim will be dismissed.

         ii. First Amendment - Free Exercise

         Determining whether a policy violates an individual's right to freely exercise his religion requires determining whether the regulation imposes a substantial burden on the exercise of religion, and, if so, whether that burden is justified by a compelling state interest. Hernandez v. Comm'r., 490 U.S. 680, 699 (1989). The question of whether a plaintiff sincerely holds a "religious" belief does not "turn upon a judicial perception of the particular belief or practice in question; religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection." Thomas v. Review Bd. of Ind. Emp't Sec. Div., 450 U.S. 707, 715 (1981). A plaintiff must, however, make a threshold showing that he sincerely holds his religious belief. Cf Id. at 717 (finding that the "narrow function" of a court reviewing a Free Exercise challenge is to determine whether the plaintiff took a specific action because of his religious beliefs). The question of whether a regulation imposes a "substantial burden" has been framed in a number of ways, including "putting substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and violate his beliefs," Thomas, 450 U.S. at 717-18, and forcing an individual to "choose between following the precepts of [his] religion and forfeiting benefit, on the one hand, and abandoning one of the precepts of [his] religion... on the other," Sherbert v. Vemer, 374 U.S. 398, 404 (1963).

         However, prisoners do not maintain the same degree of First Amendment rights as the general public. Specifically, "[a] prison inmate retains those First Amendment rights that are not inconsistent with his status as a prisoner or with the legitimate penological objectives of the corrections system." Pell v. Procunier,417 U.S. 817, 822 (1974). Accordingly, an inmate does not have the same protection from restrictions on his rights to practice his religion as do members of the general public; thus, prison officials may enact restrictions on an inmate's ability to practice his religion, as long as the official can show that the restrictions are reasonably related to legitimate penological interests. See, e.g., O'Lone v. Estate of Shabazz,48 ...


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