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Sutton v. City of Philadelphia

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

May 21, 2014

OLAF SUTTON, Plaintiff,
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, et al., Defendants.


EDUARDO C. ROBRENO, District Judge.


Olaf Sutton ("Plaintiff") is an inmate in the Philadelphia Prison System ("PPS") and a practicing Muslim. Compl. ¶¶ 1, 21, ECF No. 30. As a Muslim, Plaintiff's religion prohibits eating meat unless the meat is Halal.[1] Plaintiff was incarcerated in the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility ("CFCF") on March 26, 2010, and transferred to Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center ("PICC") on or about January 2, 2012. Compl. ¶ 20; Pl.'s Resp. Aramark Mot. Summ. J., Ex. 8, Sutton Mem. 104. Both facilities are in the PPS.

A brief overview of the PPS's religious alternative meal system is necessary to understand Plaintiff's claims. The PPS offers two types of religious diets: vegetarian and kosher. Pl.'s Resp. Aramark Defs.' Mot. Summ. J., Ex. 9, Pl. Dep. 28:9-12, ECF No. 68. Muslim inmates are offered vegetarian meals and Jewish inmates are offered kosher meals that occasionally contain meat. Compl. ¶ 28; Aramark Defs.' Mot. Summ. J. 21 ("The prisons accommodate the free exercise of Judaism by providing Kosher meals, which occasionally include Kosher meat.").

The prison's chaplain is responsible for deciding which inmates are entitled to receive religious diets and creating a list of those inmates for the prison's food provider. See Pl.'s Resp. City Defs.' Mot. Partial Summ. J. 5, ECF No. 70. Aramark is the food provider for the PPS and is tasked with preparing meals for each prisoner in compliance with the chaplain's list. See Aramark Defs.' Mot. Summ. J. 8-9, ECF No. 59.

On September 21, 2010, following a request by Plaintiff, the prison's chaplain placed Plaintiff on a special diet to accommodate his religious practice. Compl. ¶ 28. Plaintiff is not a vegetarian and desires to eat meat. Compl. ¶ 29. According to Plaintiff, his religion permits him to eat the meat contained in the kosher meals.[2] Aramark Defs.' Mot. Summ. J. 8. The prison's chaplain, however, denied Plaintiff's request to be placed a kosher diet and instead placed him on a vegetarian diet. Id .; Compl. ¶ 28. As a result, Plaintiff's approved diet does not contain any meat. Compl. ¶ 55.

Although Plaintiff was placed on a vegetarian diet, he claims that on several occasions during his incarceration at CFCF and PICC, he was not served vegetarian meals. Compl. ¶ 33. Specifically, Plaintiff claims that he was not served several religious alternative breakfasts in October 2010, any vegetarian meals from January 2, 2012, to January 9, 2012, and any vegetarian meals from December 20, 2012, to January 1, 2013. Compl. ¶ 31; Pl. Dep. 40:16-22. According to Plaintiff, during the first and last weeks of 2012, he was forced to choose between eating and violating the tenants of his religion. Pl. Dep. 42:10-23; Pl.'s Resp. Aramark Mot. Summ. J., Ex. 8, Sutton Mem. 104.

Lastly, in May 2011, Plaintiff commenced a hunger strike to protest what he believes to be a discriminatory religious alternative meal system. See Pl.'s Resp. City Defs.' Mot. Partial Summ. J. 4. Plaintiff alleges that his free exercise rights were violated by the conduct of two prison officials in relation to his hunger strike. Compl. ¶¶ 50, 51. In the early morning hours of May 12, 2011, Plaintiff was brought to the prison's mental health unit by a prison employee. Compl. ¶ 50. Later that morning, another prison employee entered Plaintiff's cell, allegedly with food that violated Plaintiff's religious dietary restrictions, and told Plaintiff to stop his hunger strike or be brought to the "hole."[3] Compl. ¶ 51. Plaintiff drank some of the orange juice that was on the tray and the prison employee left Plaintiff's cell. Compl. ¶ 50. Plaintiff was never brought to the RHU. Compl. ¶ 50.

Plaintiff commenced this litigation by filing a pro se complaint. ECF No. 3. After obtaining counsel, Plaintiff filed two amended complaints. ECF Nos. 6, 30. The second amended complaint contains six counts.[4] The counts include civil rights violations pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988 (Count I), violations of the Fourteenth Amendment (Count II), violations of the First Amendment (Count III), violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA") (Count IV), intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress (Count V), and conspiracy to deprive Fourteenth and First Amendment rights (Count VII). Plaintiff names several defendants. For organizational purposes, the Court will divide the defendants into two groups: City Defendants[5] and Aramark Defendants.[6]

On May 18, 2012, the Aramark Defendants filed a motion to dismiss. ECF No. 9. Following the motion, the Court dismissed Counts I, V, and VII. Order, Sept. 6, 2012, ECF No. 40. The City Defendants did not file a motion to dismiss.

On March 20, 2014, the Aramark Defendants informed the Court that Plaintiff was transferred from PICC to SCI Graterford on November 27, 2013. Aramark Defs.' Supp. ¶. 6, ECF No.74. As of March 12, 2014, however, Plaintiff has been incarcerated at SCI Camp Hill, which is located on the outskirts of Harrisburg.[7] Pl.'s Resp. Aramark Defs.' Supp., Ex. A, 4. Plaintiff argued that he would likely be incarcerated again in the PPS because he had an upcoming trial in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. Id. at 2. Plaintiff has since pled guilty to those charges and was transferred back to a Pennsylvania Department of Corrections facility. Plaintiff's sentence stemming from this new guilty plea will run concurrent to his previous sentence and will not require him to serve any time within the PPS.

Pending before the Court are Aramark Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment and the City Defendants' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. Plaintiff has filed responses to both motions (ECF Nos. 68, 70, 75) and the Aramark Defendants have filed a reply (ECF. 72) to Plaintiff. The motions are ripe for disposition.


Summary judgment is appropriate if there are no genuine disputes of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). "A motion for summary judgment will not be defeated by the mere existence' of some disputed facts, but will be denied when there is a genuine issue of material fact." Am. Eagle Outfitters v. Lyle & Scott Ltd. , 584 F.3d 575, 581 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986)). A fact is "material" if proof of its existence or non-existence might affect the outcome of the litigation, and a dispute is "genuine" if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson , 477 U.S. at 248.

In undertaking this analysis, the court views the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. "After making all reasonable inferences in the nonmoving party's favor, there is a genuine issue of material fact if a reasonable jury could find for the nonmoving party." Pignataro v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J. , 593 F.3d 265, 268 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Reliance Ins. Co. v. Moessner , 121 F.3d 895, 900 (3d Cir. 1997)). While the moving party bears the initial burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, meeting this obligation shifts the burden to the non-moving party who must "set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson , 477 U.S. at 250.


The Aramark Defendants argue that Plaintiff's claims for injunctive relief are moot because Plaintiff is no longer incarcerated in the PPS.[8] Plaintiff initially responded that his claims for injunctive relief are not moot under the "capable of repetition" doctrine. Pl.'s Resp. Aramark Defs.' Supp. 2-3. Plaintiff claimed that the "capable of repetition" doctrine is applicable because he will likely be incarcerated in the PPS during the adjudication of his upcoming trial in Philadelphia. Subsequently, however, Plaintiff pled guilty and has been transferred out of the PPS. Status Report, May 7, 2014, ECF No. 76. Plaintiff's counsel indicate that as a result of Plaintiff's guilty plea his "sentences will be served in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections system, and not at all in Philadelphia." Status Report.

It is well settled that this Court may only adjudicate "live" cases or controversies. Abdul-Akbar v. Watson , 4 F.3d 195, 206 (3d Cir. 1993). "[A] case is moot when the issues presented are no longer live' or the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome." Powell v. McCormack , 395 U.S. 486, 496 (1969). Nonetheless, the "capable of repetition" doctrine holds that a claim is not moot if "(1) the challenged action was in its duration too short to be fully litigated prior to its cessation or expiration, and (2) there was a reasonable expectation that the same complaining party would be subjected to the same action again." Weinstein v. Bradford , 423 U.S. 147, 149 (1975).

The first element of the "capable of repetition" doctrine is satisfied here because the challenged action-service of meat-containing religious alternative meals to Jewish inmates, but not Muslim inmates-was "in its duration too short to be fully litigated." Id . Nonetheless, the Court must still determine whether there is a reasonable expectation that Plaintiff will face the same discrimination in the future.

Generally, courts have held that an inmate's release from a correctional institution makes his or her claims for injunctive relief moot. See, e.g., id. (holding former parolee's claims were moot because plaintiff was released from parole supervision); Doe v. Delie , 257 F.3d 309, 314 (3d Cir. 2001) (holding plaintiff's claims for injunctive relief against defendant-prison officials were moot because plaintiff was no longer incarcerated at the institution where his claims originated); Abdul-Akbar , 4 F.3d at 206 (holding former inmate's claims for injunctive relief were moot because inmate was released from incarceration); Hontz v. Berks Cnty. Prison, No. 12-2663, 2012 WL 5199370 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 19, 2012). In such cases, courts focus on the reasonableness of the probability that the plaintiff would be subject to the same harms.

For example, in Abdul-Akbar the plaintiff filed a § 1983 claim against the prison alleging that the legal resources in the prison's library were inadequate. Abdul-Akbar , 4 F.3d at 197. The plaintiff was released before his claim was adjudicated. Id . Nonetheless, the district court granted an injunctive remedy against the defendant prison. Id. at 200-01. The Third Circuit vacated the district court's injunctive relief order because the plaintiff's claim was moot. Id. at 206-07. Specifically, the court held that the plaintiff did not satisfy the "capable of repetition" doctrine because nothing in the record supported the assumption that the plaintiff would be incarcerated in the future in the same prison. Id . The court went on to state that "[s]uch conjecture as to the likelihood of repetition has no place in the application of this exceptional and narrow grant of judicial power." Id. at 207.

Of particular note in Delie, the plaintiff sought injunctive relief against employees of the prison where he was incarcerated. Doe v. Delie , 257 F.3d at 312. Shortly before oral arguments the plaintiff informed the Third Circuit that his conviction was pending a re-trial. Id. at 313. The plaintiff's conviction was overturned and he was released from prison before a decision was reached. Id . As a result, the court held that the plaintiff's claims for injunctive relief were rendered moot by his release and the "capable of repetition" exception did not apply. Id. at 313-14. Specifically, the court stated, "as a result of his acquittal, we simply cannot conclude that there is a reasonable likelihood that he would be subjected to the same conduct." Id. at 314.

Finally, in the seminal case of Weinstein, the plaintiff continued to challenge certain procedures of the North Carolina Board of Parole after he was released from parole. Weinstein , 423 U.S. at 147-48. The Supreme Court explained that the plaintiff had no interest in the procedures used by the North Carolina Board of Parole after the date that he was released from supervised parole. Id. at 148. After laying out the two-part test of the "capable of repetition" doctrine, the Court held that "there is no demonstrated probability" that the plaintiff would again be under the supervision of the North Carolina Board of Parole. Id. at 149.

As Plaintiff has pled guilty, been transferred out of the PPS, and is not subject to additional incarceration within the PPS, it would be mere speculation to hold that Plaintiff will be incarcerated in the PPS again. Thus, much like the Plaintiff in Delie, the capable of repetition exception will not apply here. Delie , 257 F.3d at 312. Accordingly, Plaintiff's claims for injunctive and declaratory relief are rendered moot. As each of Plaintiff's claims also raise a claim for monetary damages, the Court will still address the defendants' motions for summary judgment.[9]


Aramark has moved for summary judgment on Counts II, III, and IV. In Counts II and III, Plaintiff alleges violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments pursuant to 42. U.S.C. § 1983. In order to address Counts II and III, the Court must first determine whether Aramark can be considered a state actor for the purposes of constitutional protections.[10] The Court will separately address Plaintiff's RLUIPA claim.

A. State Action Analysis

Aramark is a private corporation, not a government entity. As such, Aramark can only be liable for constitutional violations under § 1983 if it can fairly be considered to act under color of state law. See Kneipp v. Tedder , 95 F.3d 1199, 1204 (3d Cir. 1996); see also Pugh v. Downs , 641 F.Supp.2d 468, 472 (E.D. Pa. 2009) (Robreno, J.). There are several judicially created tests to determine whether a party acts under color of state law. The four most commonly applied tests are: (1) the close nexus test, see Blum v. Yaretsky , 457 U.S. 991, 1004 (1982), (2) the symbiotic relationship test, see Burton v. Wilmington Parking Auth. , 365 U.S. 715, 725 (1961), (3) the joint action test, see Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co. , 457 U.S. 922, 941 (1982), and (4) the public function test, see Terry v. Adams , 345 U.S. 461, 468-470 (1953). See also Pugh , 641 F.Supp.2d at 472.

Citing Evans v. Newtown, 382 U.S. 266 (1966), Plaintiff argues that Aramark is a state actor because Aramark performs a traditionally exclusive government function by providing food services to inmates. Pl.'s Resp. Aramark Defs.' Mot. Summ. J. 11. Aramark contends that as a private company it merely contracts with the state to provide food. Aramark Defs.' Mot. Summ. J. 8. According to Aramark, the traditional function of deciding what meals individual prisoners receive remains with the City. Id. at 12. Citing to several cases outside of the Third Circuit, Aramark argues that it is "well-established case law... that Aramark is not a state actor." Aramark Defs.' Resp. Pl.'s Resp. 4, ECF 72.

Courts in this district, however, have held that Aramark can be considered to act under color of state law by taking on the traditionally exclusive government function of providing food services to prisoners. See Williams v. Giorla, No. 11-6565, 2013 WL 3982348, at *5-6 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 2, 2013); McCullum v. City of Philadelphia, No. 98-5858 , 1999 WL 493696, at *2-3 (E.D. Pa. July 13, 1999) ("The court finds that Aramark acted under color of state law for purposes of § 1983 by performing the traditional government function of providing food service at a prison."); Talley v. Amarker, No. 95-7284, 1996 WL 528867, at *2-4 (E.D. Pa. Mar.7, 1996); see also Jubeh v. Dart, No. 11-3873, 2011 WL 6010267, at *2 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 29, 2011) (listing courts that have held that Aramark can be considered a state actor).[11] Aramark does not dispute that it has contracted with the City to provide food services in the PPS. As a result, Aramark can fairly be considered to have acted under color of law because it performs a function that is a traditionally exclusive government function, that of providing meals to prison inmates.

Accordingly, the Court holds that Aramark acted under color of state law and can be sued under § 1983.

B. Plaintiff's First Amendment Claims

Plaintiff claims that Walter Flaherty[12] (in his official and individual capacities) and Aramark violated Plaintiff's free exercise rights under the First Amendment by failing to consistently provide Plaintiff with vegetarian meals. Compl. ¶ 83; Pl.'s Resp. Aramark Defs.' Mot. Summ. J. 7.[13]

1. Claims Against Aramark

In order for an entity such as Aramark to be liable under § 1983, a plaintiff must provide evidence that the alleged constitutional deprivations resulted from the defendant's official policy or custom. Natale v. Camden Cnty. Corr. Facility , 318 F.3d 575, 583 (3d Cir. 2003). Under § 1983, such an entity cannot be held liable under the theory of respondeat superior. Id . Moreover, Aramark can only be held liable under § 1983 if one of its policies or customs was the "moving force" behind the alleged constitutional violation. City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris , 489 U.S. 378, 379 (1989); Murray v. Allen, No. 10-1014, 2010 WL 4159261, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 21, 2010); see also McCullum v. City Of Philadelphia, No. 98-5858, 2000 WL 329203, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 23, 2000) ("[Under § 1983, ] "a policy or custom includes practices that are so permanent and well established as to constitute a custom or usage with the force of law.").[14]

In McCullum, the prisoner-plaintiff claimed that Aramark was liable for constitutional violations under § 1983 because an Aramark employee attacked him. McCullum, 2000 WL 329203, at *1. The district court dismissed the plaintiff's claim because the plaintiff failed to show that the Aramark employee acted pursuant to any of Aramark's policies or customs. Id. at *2. Although the plaintiff's complaint alleged that Aramark "as a matter of policy or practice" failed to train, supervise, and discipline its employees, the court concluded that the plaintiff failed to present evidence showing that any Aramark policy was the cause. Id. at *1.

Presently, Plaintiff contends that Aramark violated his free exercise rights by failing, on multiple occasions, to provide him with vegetarian meals. Compl. ¶¶ 30-33. Additionally, Plaintiff alleges that an Aramark employee, on one occasion, told him to remove non-Halal meat from a breakfast tray and "eat the rest." Compl. ¶ 35. In both of these claims, however, Plaintiff has failed to present any evidence showing that an Aramark policy or custom was the cause of these alleged incidents.

First, the remark by an unidentified Aramark employee, like the single attack in McCullum, amounts to an isolated event. Plaintiff has presented no evidence suggesting that the unnamed Aramark employee acted pursuant to any Aramark policy or custom. See City of Canton , 489 U.S. at 379. Therefore, ...

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