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Chris Washington-El v. Jeffrey Beard

March 7, 2012

CHRIS WASHINGTON-EL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JEFFREY BEARD, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: District Judge Joy Flowers Conti

Chief Magistrate Judge Lisa Pupo Lenihan

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

This suit commenced with this court's receipt of the motion to proceed in forma pauperis on December 10, 2008 filed by Plaintiff Chris Washington-El ("Plaintiff"). (ECF No. 1.) The motion was granted (ECF No. 2) and Plaintiff's complaint was filed on December 18, 2008 (ECF No. 4). Plaintiff's complaint was directed solely at Defendant Jeffrey Beard, then Secretary of the Department of Corrections ("DOC"). Defendant Beard moved to dismiss the complaint (ECF No. 15), and this Court granted the motion without prejudice to Plaintiff filing an amended complaint (ECF No. 34).

Plaintiff filed an amended complaint which, in addition to Defendant Beard, named thirteen new DOC defendants.*fn1 (ECF No. 39.) Soon thereafter, Plaintiff was granted leave to amend and filed a second amended complaint naming the same fourteen defendants (collectively, "Defendants"). (ECF No. 43). Defendants moved to dismiss Plaintiff's second amended complaint, which this court granted in part and denied in part. (ECF No. 70.) Plaintiff filed his third amended complaint on May 2, 2011 (ECF No. 75), naming the same fourteen defendants. Defendants moved to dismiss Plaintiff's third amended complaint (ECF Nos. 82, 83), and Plaintiff filed a response in opposition to Defendants' motion (ECF Nos. 92, 93).

On February 3, 2012, a magistrate judge entered a Report and Recommendation (ECF No. 95), recommending that Defendants' motion be granted in part and denied in part. Specifically, she recommended that Defendants' motion be granted with respect to Plaintiff's claims regarding (1) violation of due process in relation to the denial of an impartial tribunal, (2) violation of the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment in relation to being denied attendance at Islamic congressional meetings and services, and (3) violation of RLUIPA. It was recommended that the motion be denied with respect to Plaintiff's claims regarding (1) violation of due process in relation to his continued confinement in administrative custody and on the Restrict Release List ("RRL"), (2) violation of the Eighth Amendment in relation to the exacerbation of pre-existing mental health conditions due to prolonged isolation, (3) retaliation for engaging in speech protected by the First Amendment, and (4) violation of the free exercise of religion in relation to being denied a copy of the Koran. Finally, it was recommended that Plaintiff's Eighth Amendment claim regarding the conditions of his confinement be dismissed without prejudice to him filing a fourth amended complaint.

Plaintiff was served with the Report and Recommendation at his listed address and advised that he had until February 21, 2012, to file written objections. Plaintiff filed objections to the Report and Recommendation on February 21, 2012.*fn2 (ECF No. 96.) Plaintiff's objections will be discussed in turn.

A.Plaintiff's Objections

1.RLUIPA

Plaintiff claims that Defendants Beard, Coleman, Gates, Zaken, Leggett, and Lewis violated his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"),

42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc, et seq., with respect to denying his requests for a copy of the Koran and to participate in Islamic congressional meetings and services. The magistrate judge recommended that Plaintiff's RLUIPA claims be dismissed because, to the extent he was seeking monetary damages against Defendants in their official capacities, such relief was barred by Sossamon v. Texas, 131 S. Ct. 1651, 1660 (2011), and to the extent he was seeking monetary damages against Defendants in their individual capacities, such relief was not available under RLUIPA. Specifically, the magistrate judge noted that although the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has not addressed whether individuals can be held liable under RLUIPA in their individual capacities, the clear weight of authority holds that they cannot. Plaintiff objects claiming that the court should find that Defendants can be held liable under RLUIPA in their individual capacities. A week after the magistrate judge entered her Report and Recommendation, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals decided Sharp v. Johnson, --- F. 3d ----, 2012 WL 400667 (3d Cir 2012), wherein it held that RLUIPA does not permit actions against state officials in their individual capacities. As such, to the extent he seeks monetary relief, Plaintiff's RLUIPA claims cannot proceed against Defendants in either their official or individual capacities and his objection on this basis is overruled.

Plaintiff next objects to the report on the basis that he is also seeking an injunction and declaratory relief against Defendant Beard and that such relief is not barred by RLUIPA. While Plaintiff is correct in his assertion, the court notes that the alleged RLUIPA violations took place at SCI-Fayette and Plaintiff has since been transferred to SCI-Huntingdon. This transfer rendered moot his claims for injunctive and declaratory relief. "In the prison context, the transfer of an inmate from the facility complained of moots claims for injunctive relief involving that facility." Santiago v. Sherman, No. 05-153, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5365, 2007 WL 217353, at *3 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 25, 2007) (citing Abdul-Akbar v. Watson, 4 F.3d 195 (3d Cir. 1993), and Sutton v. Rasheed, 323 F.3d 236 (3d Cir. 2003)); see also Neal v. Lucas, 75 F. App'x 960 (5th Cir. 2003) (holding that prisoner's RLUIPA claims seeking injunctive and declaratory relief related to a corrections institution's denial of his request for religious publications were rendered moot by the prisoner's transfer out of the facility where the publications were denied); Bilal v. Lehman, No. C04-2507, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89430, at *6-7 (W.D. Wash. Dec. 8, 2006) (holding that transfer rendered moot the claims for declaratory and injunctive relief related to prisoner's claim he was denied a religious diet exception).

In addition, Plaintiff's claim for declaratory relief fails because Plaintiff seeks a judgment declaring that Defendants' past actions were violative of federal law and such a claim is not permitted. The Eleventh Amendment "does not permit judgments against state officers declaring that they violated federal law in the past." P.R. Aqueduct & Sewer Auth. v. Metcalf & Eddy, Inc., 506 U.S. 139, 146 (1993); Mehdipour v. Matthews, 22 F. App'x 978, 978 n.1 (10th Cir. 2001) ("Mehdipour argues on appeal that absolute judicial immunity does not apply to his claims for injunctive relief rather than damages. The only injunctive relief sought by Mehdipour in his complaint was a declaratory judgment that the defendants had violated his rights. However, '[t]he Eleventh Amendment does not permit judgments against state officers declaring that they violated federal law in the past.'") (quoting Johns v. Stewart, 57 F.3d 1544, 1553 (10th Cir. 1995)). Thus, to the extent Plaintiff seeks injunctive and declaratory relief for the alleged RLUIPA violations, his objections to the report are without merit.

Finally, Plaintiff objects to the report arguing that his RLUIPA claims should not be dismissed because he would be entitled to attorney fees under RLUIPA assuming he retained or was appointed counsel. Plaintiff, however, is not entirely correct. While courts have discretion to award a prevailing party reasonable attorneys' fees for any action or proceedings brought to enforce a provision of § 1983 or RLUIPA, see 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b), attorneys' fees will be awarded only to those inmates who have proven an actual violation of a protected right. See Kimbrough v. California, 609 F.3d 1027, 1031 (9th Cir. 2010). Not only would Plaintiff first have to be represented by an attorney in this case, which he is not, but he would also have to prove an actual ...


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