The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Magistrate Judge Susan Paradise Baxter.
District Judge McLaughlin
A. Relevant Procedural History
On February 17, 2004, Plaintiff Leonard C. Jefferson, an inmate incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Albion ("SCI-Albion"), filed this pro se civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Named as Defendants are: William J. Wolfe ("Wolfe"), former Superintendent at SCI-Albion; Jeffrey Beard ("Beard"), Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections ("DOC"); Robert Boeh ("Boeh"), Program Manager at SCI-Albion; Glenn McQuown ("McQuown"), former Facility Chapel Program Manager at SCI-Albion; Patricia Gamble ("Gamble"), Unit Counselor at SCI-Albion; Michael Snyder ("Snyder"), Unit Counselor at SCI-Albion; Patricia McKissock ("McKissock"), Unit Manager at SCI-Albion; Timothy Hametz ("Hametz"), Unit Manager at SCI-Albion; Thomas L. James ("James"), Chief Grievance Coordinator at the DOC; Sharon M. Burks ("Burks"), Chief Grievance Coordinator at the DOC; Barry Lobdell ("Lobdell"), Corrections Officer at SCI-Albion; Mr. Clement ("Clement"), Corrections Officer at SCI-Albion; Ivory Barnett ("Barnett"), former Misconduct Hearing Examiner at SCI-Albion; and Zachary Moslak ("Moslak"), former Misconduct Hearing Examiner at SCI-Albion.
On October 24, 2005, Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Third Amended Complaint [Document # 67], which was ultimately granted in part and denied in part by Order of District Judge Sean J. McLaughlin, dated July 11, 2006. [Document # 85]. As a result of this Order, Defendants Wolfe, James, Burks, Lobdell, Clement, Barnett, and Moslak were dismissed from this case, and the following claims were allowed to proceed: (i) Plaintiff's First Amendment claim against Defendants Beard, Boeh, McKissock, and Hametz, alleging that the promulgation and enforcement of the DOC's prescriptive program policy violates the Establishment Clause; (ii) Plaintiff's First Amendment claim against Defendants Boeh, McKissock, and Hametz, alleging that his right to free exercise of religion has been violated by the enforcement of the DOC's prescriptive programs policy; (iii) Plaintiff's retaliation claim against Defendants Gamble, Snyder, and McQuown, alleging that his First Amendment right to free speech was violated when he was fired from his prison job, and later issued allegedly false misconduct reports, in retaliation for his writing of two poems regarding racial injustice in the legal system; and (iv) Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment claim against Defendants Beard and Boeh, alleging that his Equal Protection rights were violated by the issuance of an allegedly false misconduct report, which led to an increase in his custody level and removed him from housing on an honor block within SCI-Albion. As a result of these claims, Plaintiff seeks declaratory and injunctive relief and monetary damages.
After completion of discovery, the remaining Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [Document # 115] on January 12, 2007, seeking dismissal of Plaintiff's claims. On February 7, 2007, the parties filed a Consent to the Jurisdiction of this Magistrate Judge. [Document # 124]. District Judge Sean J. McLaughlin granted the consent by order dated February 9, 2007. [Document # 125]. Plaintiff subsequently filed a brief in response to Defendants' motion for summary judgment, essentially reiterating the basis for his claims. [Document # 126]. This matter is now ripe for consideration.
B. Relevant Factual History
Plaintiff was committed to SCI-Albion in or around July 1994. (Document # 39 at ¶ 19). He was transferred to SRCF-Mercer in July 1998 and was returned to SCI-Albion in October 1999. (Document # 39 at ¶¶ 21, 23). In August 2000, Plaintiff was housed on the honor block at SCI-Albion, where he had been housed prior to his transfer to SRCF-Mercer. (Document # 39 at ¶ 24). On or about November 13, 2000, Plaintiff was hired as a Chapel Clerk at SCI-Albion. (Document # 39 at ¶ 25).*fn1
On October 24, 2002, Minister Michael Anderson, a contract employee of the DOC, asked if he could make a photocopy of a newspaper article in Plaintiff's possession. (Document # 39 at ¶ 35). On the back of the newspaper article were two poems written by Plaintiff, which addressed the subject of racial injustice in the courts. (Document # 39 at ¶ 37). Minister Anderson's secretary photocopied the front and back of the newspaper article and distributed both the article and Plaintiff's poems to "various superintendents, program directors and department heads at SCI-Albion." (Document # 40). On November 13, 2002, Defendants McQuown, Gamble, and Snyder conducted a Support Team Meeting at which Plaintiff claims he was "told that he did not have any right to write such poetry." (Document # 44). The next day Plaintiff received a Job Assignment Notice informing him that he had been released from his job as Chapel Clerk, for which he was earning 42ó an hour, and was reassigned to the General Labor Pool, where he would earn 72ó a day. (Document # 39 at ¶ 48 and Exhibit A).
On November 18, 2002, Plaintiff sent an inmate's request to Defendant McQuown requesting a written statement of his "reasons and justification" for his decision to remove Plaintiff from his job as Chapel Clerk. (Document # 39, Exhibit B). In response, Defendant McQuown explained that Plaintiff's poetry, and his intent to share it with "all," was found to be a "threat to the orderly running of the institution," "inflammatory and disruptive," and that Plaintiff's position as Chapel Clerk provided him with "access to many inmates to spread this disruptive material and view." (Document # 39, Exhibit B).
On November 20, 2002, Plaintiff sent another inmate's request to Defendant Gamble requesting reasons why he was removed from his job as Chapel Clerk. (Document # 39, Exhibit C). Defendant Gamble responded to Plaintiff's request by indicating that the support team had security concerns regarding the intent of the poetry, "the extent of the contact [Plaintiff's] job allowed [him] with other inmates," and "the possibility of [Plaintiff] distributing [the poetry]" to other inmates. (Document # 39, Exhibit C at p. 2).
On July 11, 2003, Defendant Snyder informed Plaintiff that his custody level had been raised from CL-2 (honor block) to CL-3. (Document # 39 at ¶ 87). In response to Plaintiff's inmate request for a written statement of the reasons for the increase in his custody level, Defendant McKissock cited Plaintiff's "misconduct record, the fact that [Plaintiff didn't] have a job, and the issue of [Plaintiff's] refusal to complete any programming." (Document # 39 at ¶ 88 and Exhibit G). As a result, on July 16, 2003, Plaintiff was transferred from SCI-Albion's honor block to a CL-3 unit. On August 6, 2003, in response to a grievance Plaintiff filed with regard to his custody level increase, Defendant Hametz clarified that Plaintiff's "refusal to participate in programs is the reason [he] was moved off the honor unit." (Document # 39, Exhibit H).
In early April 2004, Plaintiff received a job assignment notice informing him that he was to report to Defendant McQuown on April 5, 2004 to resume his work as a Chapel Clerk at the pay rate of 33ó an hour. (Document # 39 at ¶ 62). However, Plaintiff was later found guilty of a misconduct on May 17, 2004, and was again removed from his job as Chapel Clerk. (Document # 39 at ¶ 72).
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) provides that summary judgment shall be granted if the "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Rule 56(e) further provides that when a motion for summary judgment is made and supported, "an adverse party may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of the adverse party's pleading, but the adverse party's response, by affidavits or as otherwise provided in this rule, must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. If the adverse party does not so respond, summary judgment, if appropriate, shall be entered against the adverse party." Id.
A district court may grant summary judgment for the defendant when the plaintiff has failed to present any genuine issues of material fact. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Krouse v. American Sterilizer Co., 126 F.3d 494, 500 n.2 (3d Cir. 1997). The moving party has the initial burden of proving to the district court the absence of evidence supporting the non-moving party's claims. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986); Country Floors, Inc. v. Partnership Composed of Gepner and Ford, 930 F.2d 1056, 1061 (3d Cir. 1990). Further, "[R]ule 56 enables a party contending that there is no genuine dispute as to a specific, essential fact 'to demand at least one sworn averment of that fact before the lengthy process of litigation continues.'" Schoch v. First Fidelity Bancorporation, 912 F.2d 654, 657 (3d Cir. 1990) quoting Lujan v. National Wildlife Federation, 497 U.S. 871 (1990).
The burden then shifts to the non-movant to come forward with specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574 (1986); Williams v. Borough of West Chester, Pa., 891 F.2d 458, 460-461 (3d Cir. 1989)(the non-movant must present affirmative evidence - more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance -which supports each element of his claim to defeat a properly presented motion for summary judgment). The non-moving party must go beyond the pleadings and show specific facts by affidavit or by information contained in the filed documents (i.e., depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions) to meet his burden of proving elements essential to his claim. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322; Country Floors, 930 F.2d at 1061.
A material fact is a fact whose resolution will effect the outcome of the case under applicable law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Although the court must resolve any doubts as to the existence of genuine issues of fact against the party moving for summary judgment, Rule 56 "does not allow a party resisting the motion to rely merely upon bare assertions, conclusory allegation or suspicions." Firemen's Ins. Co. of Newark, N.J. v. DuFresne, 676 F.2d 965, 969 (3d Cir. 1982). Summary judgment is only precluded if the dispute about a material fact is "genuine," i.e., if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-249.
Pro se pleadings, "however inartfully pleaded," must be held to "less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers" and can only be dismissed for failure to state a claim if it appears "'beyond a doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.'" Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-521(1972) quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957). If the court can reasonably read pleadings to state a valid claim on which the litigant could prevail, it should be done so despite failure to cite proper legal authority, confusion of legal theories, poor syntax and sentence construction, or litigant's unfamiliarity with pleading requirements. Boag v. MacDougall, 454 U.S. 364 (1982); United States ex rel. Montgomery v. Bierley, 141 F.2d 552, 555 (3d Cir. 1969)(petition prepared by a prisoner may be inartfully drawn and should be read "with a measure of tolerance"); Smith v. U.S. District Court, 956 F.2d 295 (D.C.Cir. 1992); Freeman v. Department of Corrections, 949 F.2d 360 (10th Cir. 1991). Under our liberal pleading rules, a district court should construe all allegations in a complaint in favor of the complainant. Gibbs v. Roman, 116 F.3d 83 (3d Cir.1997). See, e.g., Nami v. Fauver, 82 F.3d 63, 65 (3d Cir. 1996)(discussing Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) standard); Markowitz v. Northeast Land Company, 906 F.2d 100, 103 (3d Cir. 1990)(same).
Plaintiff alleges that Defendants "violated the Establishment Clause by attempting to force plaintiff to participate in State/DOC sponsored religious programs and then by inflicting punitive measures upon plaintiff when plaintiff repeatedly refused to participate in the State/DOC sponsored religious programs." (Document # 39 at ¶¶ 113). In particular, Plaintiff claims that his custody level was increased and he was removed from SCI-Albion's honor block as a result of his refusal to participate in DOC's prescriptive programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous ("A.A.") and Narcotics Anonymous ("N.A."), which he characterizes as "State/DOC sponsored religious programs." (Document # 39 at ¶¶ 83, 114).
Upon reviewing this claim for the first time in consideration of Defendants' previous motion to dismiss [Document # 67], this Court noted that the record was "devoid of any documents evidencing the prescriptive programs in which Plaintiff refused to participate," and, in particular, failed to indicate whether participation in A.A. and/or N.A. was included in Plaintiff's prescriptive programming. (See Document # 81 at p. 9). As a result, this Court had little choice but to presume that participation in A.A. and/or N.A. was part of Plaintiff's prescription programming and, based on that presumption, concluded that Plaintiff had sufficiently stated a cause of action for violation of the Establishment Clause. (See Document # 81 at p. 10, citing Bobko v. Lavan, 157 Fed.Appx. 516, 518, 2005 WL 3304147 at *2 (3d Cir. Dec. 7, 2005)("[t]he government violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause when it requires a prisoner to participate in a drug or alcohol rehabilitation program with a religious component.").
Defendants have now submitted copies of Plaintiff's prescriptive program plans that were issued on July 20, 2001, July 24, 2002, and July 11, 2003, respectively. (Document # 118, Appendix, at pp. 52-54). These plans evidence that A.A. and/or N.A. participation was not recommended for Plaintiff as part of his prescriptive programming. Instead, Plaintiff was recommended for the following programs: batterer's intervention; stress and anger management; citizenship training; and a long term offender's ("long timer's") group. None of these programs are religious in nature, or require any recognition or concept of a higher authority. (See Declaration of Mike Clark attached to Document # 118, Appendix, at p. 56, ¶ 8; Standardized Treatment Programs manual attached to Document # 118, Appendix, at pp. 9, 12, 15, 16; Document # 118, Appendix, at p. 96). Thus, there is no evidence of record to support a finding that Plaintiff was, in any way, "coerced [into] participat[ing] in a religious exercise" in violation of the Establishment Clause. Warner v. Orange County Dep't of Probation, 115 F.3d 1068, 1076 n. 8 (2d Cir. 1997). As a result, judgment is entered for Defendants on Plaintiff's First Amendment Establishment Clause claim.
B. Free Exercise of Religion
Plaintiff alleges that Defendants "conditioned plaintiff's continued residence on an 'honor block' upon plaintiff's abandonment of sincerely-held religious beliefs," thus violating his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. (Document # 39 at ¶ 112). In particular, Plaintiff alleges that he follows and practices the religion of al-Islam, which "clearly and adamantly state[s] the edict that it is not permissible for 'believers" to listen to and/or to accept the teachings of 'non-believers' in matters pertaining to how one should act or think...." (Document # 39 at ¶¶ 75-76). Thus, Plaintiff claims that he "has been punished (with an increase in his custody level and removal from the honor block) for asserting his constitutional rights to free exercise of religion by adhering to the principles, practices and beliefs of the Religion of al-Islam," which forbid him from participating in "non-Islamic based programs." (Document # 39 at ¶¶ 83-84).
It is well-established that prisoners have a First Amendment right to practice religion while incarcerated. Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 544 (1979). However, the right to practice one's religion while in prison is not absolute. See Price v. Johnston, 334 U.S. 266, 285 (1948) ("Lawful incarceration brings about the necessary withdrawal or limitation of many privileges and rights, a retraction justified by the considerations underlying our penal system."). Under the First Amendment, regulations or policies that infringe upon a prisoner's rights to religious freedom must pass a reasonableness standard, rather than the usual strict scrutiny standard.*fn2
Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 89 (1987). "When a prison regulation impinges on inmates' constitutional rights, the regulation is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests." Turner, 482 U.S. at 89. Courts generally accord great deference to prison officials' adoption and execution of policies, regulations, and practices relating to the preservation of internal order, discipline, and ...