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Dieppa v. Clarke

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

July 8, 2019

HAROLD W. CLARKE, et al., Defendants



         Michael Anthony Dieppa, currently incarcerated at Green Rock Correctional Center (GROC) and proceeding pro se, complains that defendants violated his constitutional rights and rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1 et seq. (RLUIPA). Defendants Harold Clarke and David Robinson, both employees of the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC), have filed a motion to dismiss. ECF No. 15. Dieppa responded to the motion to dismiss, making this matter ripe for disposition. For the reasons set forth below, the motion to dismiss is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.


         I. Factual Allegations

         The following facts, which are taken from Dieppa's complaint, his affidavit, the motion to dismiss, and the attached exhibits, are accepted as true for purposes of the defendants' motion.[1] Dieppa is a follower of Celtic Druidry. Defendant Harold Clarke is the director of VDOC and Defendant A. David Robinson is the VDOC Chief of Operations. Celtic Druidry "is a polytheistic, non-dualistic, non-sexist, non-racist, scientific, holistic, and ecologically oriented faith embracing peacefulness and 'the love of ALL existences."' ECF No. 1 at 3. A core tenet of Druidry is that "the divine is experienced through direct connection and communion with nature." Id. Druids exercise their religion in a "sacred space developed by the collection and invocation of the elements and the gods." Id. Religious practice requires the presence of the elements of earth, air, water, and fire. ECF No. 1-1 at 3-4. Without all four elements, "a sacred space cannot properly be established" and adherents are prevented from meaningful worship and religious practice. ECF No. 1-1 at 4.

         The VDOC follows Operating Procedure (OP) 841.3 to provide offenders the opportunity to practice their religions. ECF No. 16-1 at 5. Offenders have access to group religious services and VDOC designates space and either a paid or volunteer chaplain who serves as an advocate for equitable accommodation of all religious faiths. Id. at 16-1 at 5-19. Religious services are subject to monitoring and other security measures in accordance with requirements for the orderly operation and safety of the offender population. Id. at 8, Communal religious property used in religious services must comply with all department and facility procedures relating to contraband. Communal faith items are stored in a secure area of the facility and made available to offenders during approved worship times. Id. at 15.

         In addition to communal faith items, offenders may submit requests for personal faith objects at the institutional level and the facility head or designee reviews the requests and makes a recommendation for approval or denial. Id. at 9. Requests are then sent to the Faith Review Committee (FRC), a panel of representative VDOC staff, for review. Id. The FRC's recommendations are "referred to the Chief of Corrections Operations . . . for review and approval prior to notifying facilities of changes." Id. at 14. If approved, the requested item is added to the list of Approved Religious Items, available for offenders throughout VDOC. Id. at 9. If the FRC has reviewed a request for a particular item within the past twelve months, no new review is required - the prior decision can be applied to all repeated requests. Id.

         VDOC allows offenders to observe holy days where called for by their religions. However, levels of offender participation and the availability of facility resources and religious leaders does not permit separate services for every possible form of worship at every facility. Id. at 12. VDOC has a "Master Religious Calendar" that it uses as a guide for planning holy days and religious observations. Id. and ECF No. 18-3 at 7-11.

         Pursuant to OP 841.3, Dieppa requested several "specific and required religious items for personal use." ECF No. 1 at 4. Dieppa requested a wooden wand, a tea candle, an oil diffuser, a small bell, an offering bowl, and an outdoor area with a fire pit (Aff. of Bernard Morris, ¶ 11; ECF No, 16-1). The Facility Unit Head recommended disapproval of all the requests and the FRC reviewed and denied all the requests on September 14, 2017. ECF No. Iat5.

         Dieppa's request for a wooden wand specified that it was an "integral, necessary staple of [his] religion used for "healing, harmony, peace, and cleansing." ECF No. 1-2 at 9. The Facility Unit Head recommended approval of the wand for communal use only, noting that the facility already allowed drum sticks. Id. Another group was permitted to use these drumsticks, which are similar to a wand in shape and material, in their religious practices. ECF No. 1 at 6. Despite the recommendation for approval, the FRC disapproved die request based on "safely and security; potential weapon." Id. Dieppa's request for a tea candle indicated that the candle fulfilled the requirement of fire in his sacred space. ECF No. 1-2 at 10. The Facility Unit Head recommended disapproval based on security and safety concerns related to the open flame. Id. The FRC's basis for denying the request was "safety and security (fire hazard) & could mask odors (drugs, etc.)." Dieppa requested an oil diffuser because his "prayers and invocations are not properly carried to the gods without it." ECF No. 1-2 at 11. The Facility Unit Head recommended disapproval as staff is not permitted this item. The FRC denied the request due to "safety and security (fire hazard) & could mask odors (drugs, etc.)." Id.

         Dieppa requested a wooden or metal offering bowl for daily use. ECF No. 1-2 at 12. He indicated that plastics and man-made materials are unacceptable as they are '"offensive to [him] and [his] deities." Id. For this reason, the plastic bowls sold by VDOC are not acceptable for religious use. ECF No. 1 at 7. The Facility Unit Head recommended disapproval as the item is already approved for communal use. ECF No. 1-2 at 12. The FRC found that a blessing bowl was already approved as a communal item and denied the request. Id.

         Dieppa requested a small bell, indicating it is "required in [his] religious practices ... to clear [his] sacred space of unwanted negative energies and spirits" and can be used to "call deities to [his] sacred space." ECF No. 1-2 at 13. The Facility Unit Head recommended disapproval due to the "burden of keeping track of another metal object in the facility." Id. The FRC denied the request due to "safety & security (potential weapon)." Id.

         Finally, Dieppa requested an exterior worship area with a fire pit to use as part of approved holiday celebrations. ECF No. 1-2 at 14. The Facility Unit Head recommended disapproval and the FRC denied the request due to "security & safety issue with fire inside the compound." Id.

         In addition to Dieppa's requests, two other offenders made requests related to Druidry. Offender William Graham requested plant-based essential oils and a chalice. The Facility Unit Head recommended approval of oils, but it was denied by the FRC because the "already approved oils are deemed adequate. Cedarwood is already approved." ECF No. 1-2 at 7. Graham's request for a chalice was not approved, with the Facility Unit Head saying it was not a reasonable request for personal use and the FRC finding it was a safely and security risk because it could be used as a weapon. ECF No. 1-2 at 8. Offender Fields requested recognition of six Druid holy days, but the request was denied because two holy days, Samhain and Beltane, already were recognized. ECF No. 1-1 at 7-8; Morris Aff. ¶ 12, ECF No. 16-1 at 3.

         Dieppa appealed the denials of all the objects and the holy days through the administrative process. ECF Nos. 1 at 6; 1-2 at 2-6. Defendant Robinson upheld the FRC's decisions regarding the objects and holy days on December 4, 2017 and notified Dieppa that he had exhausted all administrative remedies. ECF No. 1-2 at 6.

         II. Causes of Action

         Dieppa claims that (1) defendants violated his rights under the First Amendment and RLUIPA by denying him possession of certain holy items, including the essential oils, chalice, wooden wand, candle, oil diffuser, small offering bowl, and small bell; (2) defendants violated his rights under the First Amendment and RLUIPA by denying him recognition of certain holy days; and (3) defendants violated his fight to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment by denying Druidry's holy days while approving the holy days of other religions. Dieppa seeks injunctive relief mandating approval of the requested religious items and holy days, declaratory relief that his rights were violated, and $50, 000.00 in punitive damages from each defendant.

         In their motion to dismiss, defendants argue (1) Dieppa lacks standing to bring claims for the items and holy days he did not personally request; (2) Dieppa has failed to state a claim for relief because he has not stated facts showing that defendants have substantially burdened his faith under RLUIPA and the First Amendment, and (3) Dieppa failed to allege the personal involvement of either Defendant necessary to sustain a claim under § 1983.


         I. Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1)

         Defendants move to dismiss Dieppa's claims under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, asserting that he lacks standing to sue on some of his claims. See Payne v. Chapel Hill North Properties. LLC. 947 F.Supp.2d 567, 572 (M.D. N.C. 2013) (noting that challenges to standing are addressed under Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction).

         There are two strands of standing: constitutional and prudential. Doe v. Virginia Dept. of State Police. 713 F.3d 745, 753 (4th Cir. 2013). Article III of the Constitution permits federal courts to adjudicate only "actual cases and controversies." Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737, 750 (1984). The constitutional standing doctrine gives effect to this requirement by "ensur[ing] that a plaintiff has a sufficient personal stake in a dispute to render judicial resolution appropriate." Friends of the Earth. Inc. v. Gaston Copper Recycling Corp.. 204 F.3d 149, 153 (4th Cir. 2000) (en banc). To establish constitutional standing, a plaintiff must have (1) suffered an injury-in-fact that is (a) concrete and particularized and (b) actual or imminent; (2) the injury must be fairly traceable to the challenged action of the defendant; and (3) the injury must be likely to be redressed by a favorable decision. Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-61 (1992).

         The party invoking federal jurisdiction generally "bears the burden of establishing these elements." Id. at 112. However, documents filed pro se are liberally construed and this extends to standing. Erickson v. Pardus. 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). See Gould v. Schneider. 448 Fed.Appx. 615, 618 (7th Cir. 2011) (explaining that a district court may liberally construe a pro se litigant's factual allegations pertaining to standing) and Lerman v. Bd. Of Elections in City of New York. 232 F, 3d 430, 437 (7th Cir. 1998) ("[T]he obligation to read the pleadings of a pro se plaintiff liberally and interpret them to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest . . . extends to the question of standing no less than it does to any other issue." (internal quotation marks and citations omitted)).

         Prudential standing serves "judicially self-imposed limits on the exercise of federal jurisdiction." Allen, 468 U.S. at 751. The doctrine encompasses "the general prohibition on raising another person's legal rights, the rule barring adjudication of generalized grievances more appropriately addressed in the representative branches, and the requirement that the plaintiffs complaint fall within the zone of interests protected by the law invoked." Id.

         Defendants allege that Dieppa lacks both constitutional and prudential standing to bring claims related to the plant-based essential oils, the chalice, and the holy days because he did not personally request those items and did not request the holy days to which he now claims he and the other Druids are entitled. As set out above, Offender Graham requested the chalice and the plant-based oils, while Offender Fields sought recognition of the six holy days. Dieppa responds that because Robinson upheld the denial of these religious items and holy days, Dieppa is prevented from practicing his religion in violation of RLUIPA, die First Amendment, and the Fourteenth Amendment.

         The court finds that Dieppa has constitutional standing because he has a personal stake in the outcome of this litigation. He alleges that he needs the requested items in order to practice his religion and it is uncontested that VDOC has declined to add the items requested by Dieppa and Graham to the list of approved faith items. To the extent defendants are asserting that Dieppa failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, their assertion is foreclosed by defendant Robinson's final response to Dieppa's grievances, where he stated that he had reviewed Dieppa's grievance of the FRC's decision to disapprove his request for religious items and additional holy days. Robinson determined that the grievance was unfounded and stated that Dieppa had exhausted all administrative remedies. ECF No. 1-2 at 6.

         Moreover, the FRC is not required to review repeat requests for individual faith items for twelve months following its initial decision. ECF No. 16-1 at 9. Thus, die denial of Graham's request effectively foreclosed Dieppa's ability to seek FRC approval for a year. The denial of items Dieppa claims are required for his religious practice, even though requested by Graham, constitutes a concrete and particularized injury-in-fact. A favorable decision would redress Dieppa's injury by enabling Dieppa to access these items through the Approved Religious Items list. Constitutional standing therefore is satisfied.

         The same analysis applies to Dieppa's claim that denial of the holy days places a substantial burden on the practice of his religion. That Fields rather than Dieppa requested the holy days does not change the fact that the holy days are not recogni2ed by VDOC. Accordingly, Dieppa has constitutional standing to bring both of these claims.

         Second, .Dieppa also has prudential standing. Defendants claim that Dieppa is attempting to bring claims on behalf of Graham and Fields rather than himself. However, Dieppa's complaint makes clear that he is seeking the items so that he can "meaningfully practice his religion." ECF No. 1 at 8. While he does discuss the items in terms of himself and others who practice the religion, nowhere in his pleadings does he appear to be bringing claims on behalf of anyone but himself. Also, if approved, the plant-based essential oils and chalice would have been placed on the Approved Religious Items list and made available to all VDOC offenders, including Dieppa. While prudential standing generally "prohibits raising another person's legal rights," the ...

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