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Pickwell v. Newton

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

September 24, 2019

COL. NEWTON, et al., Defendants.



         John Rodney Pickwell, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, filed this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action. This action proceeds on Pickwell's Amended Complaint (ECF No. 9). In the Amended Complaint, Pickwell argues that, during his incarceration at Riverside Regional Jail (``RRJ"), Defendants Colonel Newton, Major Wilson, and Chaplain Collins violated his right to practice his Asatru religion. The Court construes Pickwell to raise the following claims for relief:[1]

Claim One: Defendants placed a substantial burden on Pickwell's exercise of his religion in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (``RLUIPA")[2] by:
(a) denying him an evening meal after his "religious fast" (Am. Compl. 2);
(b) denying his right to a "dignified disposal of [his] sacrifice" (id.); and,
(c) failing to allow him to possess and use Asatru religious objects. (Id.)
Claim Two: Defendants violated Pickwell's First Amendment[3] right to free exercise of religion by:
(a) denying him an evening meal after his "religious fast" (id.);
(b) denying his right to a "dignified disposal of [his] sacrifice" (id.); and,
(c) failing to allow him to possess and use Asatru religious objects. (Id.)
Claim Three: Defendants violated Pickwell's Fourteenth Amendment[4] right to equal protection by denying ``[his] religious group" an evening meal after their fast ``as afforded to other religious groups during their fast." (Id.)

         Pickwell seeks injunctive and monetary relief. (Id.) This matter is before the Court on DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO DISMISS PLAINTIFF'S COMPLAINT, AND ALTERNATIVELY FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT filed by Chaplain Collins (ECF Nos. 54, 58), the MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT filed by Colonel Newton and Major Wilson (ECF No. 62), and the Court's responsibility to review prisoner actions under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2) and 1915A. Pickwell has filed a RESPONSE TO MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND DISMISSAL ("Response, " ECF No. 65) . For the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant the Motions for Summary Judgment.


         Summary judgment must be rendered ``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 party seeking summary judgment bears the responsibility to inform the court of the basis for the motion, and to identify the parts of the record which demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) . ``[W]here the nonmoving party will bear the burden of proof at trial on a dispositive issue, a summary judgment motion may properly be made in reliance solely on the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file." Id. at 324 (internal quotation marks omitted). When the motion is properly supported, the nonmoving party must go beyond the pleadings and, by citing affidavits or `` “depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, ' designate `specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Id•. (quoting former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c) and 56(e) (1986)).

         In reviewing a summary judgment motion, the court "must draw all justifiable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party." United States v. Carolina Transformer Co., 978 F.2d 832, 835 (4th Cir. 1992) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986)). However, a mere "scintilla of evidence" will not preclude summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251 (citing Improvement Co. v. Munson, 81 U.S. (14 Wall.) 442, 448 (1871)). ``[T]here is a preliminary question for the judge, not whether there is literally no evidence, but whether there is any upon which a jury could properly proceed to find a verdict for the party . . . upon whom the onus of proof is imposed." Id. (quoting Munson, 81 U.S. at 448). Additionally, ``Rule 56 does not impose upon the district court a duty to sift through the record in search of evidence to support a party's opposition to summary judgment.'' Forsyth v. Barr, 19 F.3d 1527, 1537 (5th Cir. 1994) (quoting Skotak v. Tenneco Resins, Inc., 953 F.2d 909, 915 n.7 (5th Cir. 1992)).

         In support of Chaplain Collins's Motion for Summary Judgment, he submits: (1) his own affidavit ("Collins Aff., " ECF No. 59-1); (2) copies of Pickwell's inmate requests, staff's responses, and staff correspondence regarding Pickwell's religious requests (ECF Nos. 59-2, 59-4, 59-5, 59-6); and, (3) a copy of a calendar reflecting Asatru religious events in 2017 (ECF No. 59-3). In support of Colonel Newton and Major Wilson's Motion for Summary Judgment, they submit: (1) the affidavit of Major Wilson (``Wilson Aff., " ECF No. 63-1, at 1-4); (2) a copy of the Virginia Department of Corrections' (``VDOC") Master Religious Calendar (id. at 5-9); (3) the affidavit of Colonel Newton (``Newton Aff., " ECF No. 63-2); and, (4) copies of all exhibits submitted by Chaplain Collins in support of his Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 63-3).

         As a general rule, a non-movant must respond to a motion for summary judgment with affidavits or other verified evidence. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324. Pickwell filed an unsworn response, but he has not cited any evidence that he wishes the Court to consider in opposition to the Motions for Summary Judgment.[5] And, although Pickwell's Amended Complaint is notarized, he did not sign it under the penalty of perjury; and the notary did not administer an oath. (Am. Compl. 2.) Thus, the Amended Complaint will not be considered as sworn evidence. See Price v. Rochford, 947 F.2d 829, 832 (7th Cir. 1991) (refusing to consider documents verified in such a manner to avoid the penalty of perjury); Hogge v. Stephens, No. 3:19CV582, 2011 WL 2161100, at *2-3 & n.5 (E.D. Va. June 1, 2011) (treating statements sworn to under penalty of perjury, but made upon information and belief, as "mere pleading allegations") (quoting Walker v. Tyler Cty. Comm'n, 11 F.App'x 270, 274 (4th Cir. 2001)).

         In sum, Pickwell has presented no evidence in opposition to the motions for summary judgment. The motions would be granted for that reason alone. However, courts are instructed to accord a measure of leniency to pro se litigants. Therefore, the motions will be considered on their merits, and all permissible inferences will be extended to Pickwell.


         A. The Parties

         ``Pickwell was incarcerated at RRJ from July 12, 2017 to March 13, 2018." (Wilson Aff. ¶ 5.) Thereafter, Pickwell ``was transferred to the [VDOC]." (Newton Aff. ¶ 6.)

         Colonel Newton is ``the Superintendent of [RRJ]." (Id. ¶ 1.) Major Wilson is ``the Director of Community Corrections and Programs for [RRJ]." (Wilson Aff. ¶ 1.) Chaplain Collins "worked as an Inmate Chaplain at RRJ during the period of time when [Pickwell was incarcerated at RRJ]." (Collins Aff. ¶ 2.) In Chaplain Collins's affidavit, he explains his job responsibilities as follows:

As chaplain, I did not have any independent authority or ability to approve an inmate's requests for specific books, religious items, sacrificial disposal of food, fasts, need to not speak for nine days or any other requests by Pickwell or other inmates. Such requests were forwarded to RRJ for consideration, input and decision-making, per [RRJ's] policies, procedures and concerns for the safety and security of the jail.

(Id. ¶ 10 (paragraph number omitted).)

         B. VDOCs Master Religious Calendar

         ``RRJ adheres to the Master Religious Calendar, " which is "provided by the [VDOC]." (Wilson Aff. ¶ 10.) Pursuant to the VDOC's Master Religious Calendar, "there are only two celebrations that are celebrated by members of the Asatru faith, the Summer Solstice and the Yule or Winter Solstice." (Id.; see ECF No. 63-1, at 5-9.) Further, pursuant to the VDOCs Master Religious Calendar, "both celebrations are feasts and neither includes any fasting by practitioners." (Wilson Aff. ¶ 10.)

         C. Pickwell's Religious Requests

         On July 14, 2017, Pickwell informed Chaplain Collins that "he practice[d] Asatru and need[ed] a copy of the poetic edda, which was equivalent to a bible." (Collins Aff. ¶ 5.) `` [Pickwell's] request was submitted to and approved by [Major Wilson]." (Id.) Approximately ``2-3 copies of the poetic edda were obtained and kept in the library for the use of inmates." (Id.)[6] Pickwell also provided Chaplain Collins with a "calendar that had no reference ...

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