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Potts v. Holt

United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania

January 22, 2014

RONNIE HOLT, et al., Defendants





Stripped to its essentials this case presents the following question: Did prison officials violate the clearly established constitutional rights of the plaintiff, a federal inmate, when they were compelled to briefly curtail his religious dietary preferences as they confronted an unprecedented institutional crisis, a prison lock-down and medical emergency resulting from a massive outbreak of food poisoning, an episode which compelled the closure of the prison’s food services? On the extraordinary and compelling circumstances of this case, we find that the defendants did not transgress Potts’ clearly established rights, and, therefore, recommend that the Court enter summary judgment on behalf of the defendants.

On or around June 26, 2011, the United States Penitentiary at Canaan (“USP-Canaan”) experienced a significant and extraordinary event: an outbreak of Salmonella food poisoning that was transmitted to inmates and prison staff through the consumption of tainted chicken. Hundreds of inmates and staff were sickened as a result, with inmates complaining of stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and headaches. To address the situation, the prison was formally placed on lockdown on June 26, 2011. Two days later, all food services operations at USP-Canaan were suspended, and transferred to the adjacent Federal Prison Camp. The following day, June 29, 2011, the Food Service Administrator, Wayne Ryan, a defendant in this action, went on extended absence from USP-Canaan, and would not return for approximately six months.

In an effort to get their arms around this extraordinary occurrence, and to gain a measure of control over the situation, Health Services at USP-Canaan made the decision to initiate a “special or bland” diet for the entire inmate population, beginning with the lunch meal on June 29, 2011.[1] Inmates at USP-Canaan were thereafter served the “bland diet” for the breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals through July 8, 2011. By lunch on July 1, 2011, an enhanced menu had been approved with more menu items. (Doc. 43-1, Declaration of DeShawn China ¶ 10 and attached email at pp. 2-4) The defendants have provided a detailed and comprehensive overview of each meal that was approved and served to inmates throughout the lockdown, all of which contained a variety of foods, including non-flesh food items which were believed to adhere to religious dietary mandates. (Doc. 43-1, China Decl., ¶¶ 9-21) The normal food menu resumed on July 9, 2011, and on July 13, 2011, USP-Canaan returned to normal operations.

Richard Potts is an inmate at USP-Canaan and an adherent of Islam. Potts was incarcerated at the prison at the time of the Salmonella outbreak and resulting lockdown. As a practicing Muslim, Potts receives certified religious meals from the prison’s food service, and represents that he has done so for more than a decade. During the lockdown at USP-Canaan, however, Potts stopped receiving certified religious meals for approximately two weeks, and this brief interruption to his religious diet inspired the instant lawsuit.

Potts brought this Bivens[2] action on July 26, 2012, and later amended his complaint on February 27, 2013, alleging that after the prison was placed on lockdown, his certified religious meals were discontinued without notice. Potts claims that during the approximately two weeks that the prison went into lockdown status, he “ate very little or nothing at all . . . and suffers greatly from all the consequences therefrom.” Potts does not elaborate on how he has “suffer[ed] greatly, ” and he does not explain what were the “consequences” of his declining to consume much if any of the food that was served to him as part of the special bland diet offered to inmates during the lockdown. (Doc. 1, Am. Compl., p. 3) He claims that during the lockdown, 36 certified meals were withheld from him by “Defendant.” Although Potts claims that he “suffer[ed] greatly, ” he does not allege that actually suffered physical injury as a result of the withheld meals, or his decision not to consume much or any of the alternate meals that were made available to him during this time.[3]

Nevertheless, Potts has brought claims alleging that his First and Eighth Amendment rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution were violated as the result of the dietary decisions made by prison officials during the approximately two weeks in late June and early July 2011 that followed the outbreak of food poisoning throughout the inmate population at the prison.

Potts also brings a claim under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb-1 et seq. (“RFRA”), claiming that the decision to withhold certified religious meals during a two-week lockdown, and to make available for Potts the “special bland diet” being served to other inmates as well as the uniform meal service that briefly followed, violated the statute by imposing a substantial burden on Potts’s sincerely held religious convictions without a sufficiently important countervailing governmental interest. Potts has named as defendants Ronnie Holt, the former Warden at USP-Canaan who has retired since the events alleged in the complaint; Wayne Ryan, the Food Services Administrator; and DeShawn China, the Assistant Food Services Administrator at USP-Canaan.

The defendants have now moved to dismiss the amended complaint, or otherwise moved for summary judgment to be entered in their favor on all claims. The defendants argue all claims should be dismissed for lack of personal involvement, to the extent that Potts has not articulated how any of the three named defendants was responsible for the constitutional violations alleged in this case. Next, the defendants maintain that Potts has failed to make out a claim under the RFRA. Lastly, the defendants contend that they are entitled to summary judgment on Potts’s claims brought for alleged First and Eighth Amendment violations, because the undisputed facts show that Potts’s constitutional claims fail. Alternatively, the defendants assert that they are entitled to qualified immunity on Potts’s claims.[4]

Upon consideration, we recommend that the motion be granted, because under the unique facts of this case, the defendants are plainly entitled to qualified immunity from Potts’s claims. The evidence in the record shows that prison officials, including DeShawn China who was effectively running the food services operations immediately following the food poisoning outbreak, went to extraordinary lengths to minimize the health crisis that had broken out, including by overseeing the move of all food service operations to a satellite kitchen at an adjacent federal facility. In a candid email to subordinates sent July 1, 2011, Mr. China acknowledged that the adjustments to the food preparation and delivery operations at USP-Canaan presented “a logistical nightmare, ” but commendably concluded that observation by emphasizing for his staff that “[i]t is imperative that we are attempting to make normal meal times” for inmates. (Doc. 43-1, Declaration of DeShawn China, and email dated July 8, 2011 attached thereto) Nothing in the amended complaint suggests that China’s food services administration team failed in meeting this overarching goal during a time of great challenge affecting an entire prison.

Even accepting as true the plaintiff’s representations that he ate “little” food following the salmonella outbreak and resultant disruption in the food services program for roughly two weeks, and that he in some unspecified way “suffered” as a result, we ultimately find that all of the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity on the plaintiff’s claims. It is undisputed that USP-Canaan experienced a health crisis that was widespread and acute, and that swift and decisive actions were thereafter taken that affected the meals provided to all inmates, including inmates like Potts who at all other times receive a certified religious meal. But in temporarily suspending the provision of certified religious meals, and furnishing all inmates with a “special bland diet” for a short period of time, which included some non-meat options, prison administrators were acting in accordance with uncontested policy guidelines developed by the Bureau of Prisons, and we do not find based on what are essentially undisputed facts that any of the three defendants reasonably could have been expected to know that their decisions regarding food safety and meal preparation for a two week period violated the United States Constitution or other federal law.

What Potts has really presented is an assertion that administrators at USP-Canaan – who were dealing with a significant crisis affecting large numbers of inmates that forced the closure of the prison’s kitchen – should nevertheless have made additional efforts to make sure that Potts received a specially prepared meal perfectly conforming to his religious dietary needs. As discussed more fully below, however, the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity from such claims, based on facts that are beyond dispute in this case, since none of the defendants could reasonably be expected to have known that their decisions in this regard could have been unlawful.


The defendants bring their motion pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) and 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. We briefly summarize the standards of review applicable to ...

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