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Woods v. Chiarelli

August 21, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Conner


Plaintiff Gregory Woods ("Woods") commenced this civil rights action on January 16, 2007. (Doc. 1.) He is presently proceeding via an amended complaint. (Doc. 15.) Named as Defendants are Captain Frank Chiarelli, Assistant Warden Timothy Betti and Correctional Officer Barry Craven. Before the court is defendants' motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 35.) For the reasons set forth below, the motion will be granted.

I. Statement of Material Facts

In December 2006, the United States Marshal's Service transported Woods, a federal inmate, to the Lackawanna County Correctional Facility ("LCCF"). He entered the facility with a "Prisoner Custody Alert Notice," generated by the United States Marshal's Service, that informed the prison staff that he was to be separated from federal inmates Basir Woods, who is Woods' son , Dominic Wilkins, and David Savage, and that they were all to be separated from each other. (Doc. 37-2, at 4.)

Woods is of the Muslim faith. (Doc. 15.) Woods' son, Wilkins, and Savage are also of the Muslim faith. (Affidavit of Frank Chiarelli, ("Chiarelli Affidavit), Doc. 37-2 at 5, ¶ 1.) At some point after his arrival at LCCF, Woods was insisting on attending Muslim services with his son, Wilkins and Savage. (Chiarelli Affidavit, Doc. 37-2, at 2, ¶ 3.) Because of the separation order, defendant Chiarelli, a captain at LCCF directed defendant Craven not to permit Woods to attend the services. (Id. at ¶¶ 3, 4.) Consequently, Woods was prohibited from attending services.

In a document entitled "motion to oppose Defendants motion for summary judgment," Woods indicates that he would like to challenge certain undisputed facts in court. (Doc. 39.) Specifically, he takes issue with being denied attendance at services and prayer class because none of the inmates named in the separation order are practicing Muslims and, therefore, his engaging in these communal activities would not have caused a security risk. (Doc. 39, at 1, ¶¶ 2, 4.) Notably, Woods does not provide any evidence in support of this statement.

II. Standard of Review

"Summary judgment serves as a minimal but important hurdle for litigants to overcome before presenting a claim to a jury." Pappas v. City of Lebanon, 331 F. Supp. 2d 311, 314 (M.D. Pa. 2004). Faced with such a motion, the adverse party must produce affirmative evidence, beyond the disputed allegations of the pleadings, in support of the claim. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(e); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Corneal v. Jackson Township, 313 F. Supp. 2d 457, 464 (M.D. Pa. 2003), aff'd, 94 Fed. Appx. 76 (3d Cir. 2004). "Such affirmative evidence-- regardless of whether it is direct or circumstantial--must amount to more than a scintilla, but may amount to less (in the evaluation of the court) than a preponderance." Saldana v. Kmart Corp., 260 F.3d 228, 232 (3d Cir. 2001) (quoting Williams v. Borough of West Chester, 891 F.2d 458, 460-61 (3d Cir. 1989). Only if this burden is met can the cause of action proceed. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250-51 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-89 (1986); see FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c), (e).

III. Discussion

To establish a free exercise violation, Woods must show that the defendants burdened the practice of his religion by preventing him from engaging in conduct mandated by his faith without any justification reasonably related to legitimate penological interests. See Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 89 (1987).

The First Amendment offers protection for a wide variety of expressive activities. See U.S. CONST. amend I. These rights are lessened, but not extinguished in the prison context, where legitimate penological interests must be considered in assessing the constitutionality of official conduct. See Turner, 482 U.S. at 89. Prisoners must be afforded "reasonable opportunities" to exercise their religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. Cruz v. Beto, 405 U.S. 319, 322 n.2 (1972). However, imprisonment necessarily results in restrictions on some constitutional rights, including the First Amendment's right to the free exercise of religion. O'Lone v. Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 348-49 (1987). It is well-established that only those religious beliefs which are (1) sincerely held, and (2) religious in nature are entitled to constitutional protection. Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 215-19 (1972); Dehart v. Horn, 227 F.3d 47, 51 (3d Cir. 2000); Africa v. Pennsylvania, 662 F.2d 1025, 1029-30 (3d Cir. 1981)(describing three indicia of religion (1) an attempt to address "fundamental and ultimate questions" involving "deep and imponderable matters"; (2) a comprehensive belief system; and (3) the presence of formal and external signs like clergy and observance of holidays.).

For purposes of the motion, defendants concede that "Woods' desire to attend communal Muslim worship services does implicate the Free Exercise of Religion clause of the First Amendment." (Doc. 37, at 6.) Once a plaintiff has demonstrated that a constitutionally protected interest is at stake, as is the case here, Turner v. Safley sets out a four-factor test to determine the reasonableness of the regulation. Turner, 482 U.S. at 89-90. The Turner test requires that:

First, there must be a valid, rational connection between the prison regulation and the legitimate governmental interest put forward to justify it, and this connection must not be so remote as to render the policy arbitrary or irrational. Second, a court must consider whether inmates retain alternative means of exercising the circumscribed right. Third, a court must take into account the costs that accommodating the right would impose on other inmates, guards, and prison resources generally.

And fourth, a court must consider whether there are alternatives to the regulation that fully accommodate[ ] the prisoner's rights at de ...

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