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Sutton v. City of Philadelphia

United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

August 20, 2014

OLAF SUTTON
v.
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA

MEMORANDUM

NORMA L. SHAPIRO, J.

Olaf Sutton ("Sutton"), filing an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the City of Philadelphia ("the City"), alleged he was unable to exercise his religious beliefs as a Muslim while incarcerated at the Curran Fromhold Correctional Facility ("CFCF") in the Philadelphia Prison System ("PPS"). He brought claims under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"). Following a three day jury trial, civil judgment was entered in favor of the City as to plaintiffs First Amendment and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA") claims. Plaintiff then moved for judgment as a matter of law, or in the alternative, for a new trial. Both motions will be denied.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Sutton had been in Philadelphia custody for over three years at the time he filed his second amended complaint. Plaintiff alleged he could not perform Salat, prayer that occurs five times a day, or attend Jumu'ah, a weekly congregation of religious Muslims. Plaintiff sought only injunctive relief. Cross-motions for summary judgment were denied because there were disputed issues of material fact whether plaintiff could return to his cell to pray, pray in his three-man cell, and/or attend Jumu'ah.

Plaintiffs oral motion for judgment as a matter of law at trial was denied. Following a verdict for defendant, plaintiff filed a Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law and an Alternative Motion for a New Trial (paper no. 79). After defendant filed a Response in Opposition (paper no. 86), the court heard oral argument on the pending motions.

Plaintiff argued that the judgment order entered in favor of defendant should be vacated and judgment as a matter of law should be entered in favor of plaintiff. In the alternative, plaintiff asks the court to order a new trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a) because: (1) the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence; or (2) defendant's use of peremptory strikes violated Batson v. Kentucky and its progeny.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Judgment as a Matter of Law

Judgment as a matter of law may be entered "[i]f a party has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial and the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue."[1] Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1). The court must determine whether "the record contains the minimum quantum of evidence from which a jury might reasonably afford relief." Keith v. Truck Stops Corp. of America, 909 F.2d 743, 745 (3d Cir. 1990). The court should grant the motion only if, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, the evidence is not sufficient for the jury to find liability. Goodman v. Pennsylvania Tpk. Comm'n, 293 F.3d 655, 665 (3d Cir. 2002). "In determining whether the evidence is sufficient to sustain liability, the court may not weigh the evidence, determine the credibility of witnesses, or substitute its version of the facts for the jury's version." Lightning Lube, Inc. v. Witco Corp., 4 F.3d 1153, 1166 (3d Cir. 1993).

On the First Amendment claim, plaintiff was required to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that: (1) his beliefs were sincerely held and religious in nature, Africa v. Com. of Pa., 662 F.2d 1025, 1030 (3d Cir. 1981); (2) the City's policy, practice or custom burdened plaintiffs ability to exercise his religious beliefs; and (3) the City's policy, practice or custom was not reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest. See Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 89 (1987). As the court stated in its jury instructions, "A pretrial detainee's First Amendment rights are not burdened by the denial of any one specific practice, but the pretrial detainee must be able to pray in one way or another."

On the RLUIPA claim, plaintiff had to prove aprima facie case that: (1) his religious beliefs were sincerely held; and (2) the City's policy, practice or custom substantially burdened his ability to exercise his religious beliefs. Washington v. Klem, 497 F.3d 272, 280 (3d Cir. 2007). A substantial burden exists where: (1) an inmate has been forced to choose between following the precepts of his religion and forfeiting benefits otherwise available to other inmates or abandoning a precept of his religion and receiving the benefit; or (2) the government has put substantial pressure on the inmate to substantially modify his behavior and violate his beliefs. Id. at 280. If plaintiff met his prima facie case, then the defendant had to prove: (1) its policy, practice or custom furthered a compelling penological interest; and (2) its policy or practice was the least restrictive means of furthering this compelling penological interest. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a). See also Williams v. Secretary, PA. Dept. ofCorr., 450 Fed.Appx. 191, 195 (3d Cir. 2011) (a prison's restrictions on where a Muslim inmate might engage in obligatory prayer were the least restrictive means of furthering security interests).

Evidence presented at trial supported the jury's finding that the City's actions did not place a burden or substantial burden on plaintiffs religious exercise. There was evidence that the plaintiff was able to perform many, but not all, of the prayers required for his religious exercise. Co-plaintiff Jackson testified that while in custody at PPS he performed five Salats every day and was able to attend Jumu'ah when it was called. Trans. 163:5-8. Plaintiff Sutton testified that he was able to attend Jumu'ah services once or twice a month and that his inability to attend the services on a weekly basis did not present a problem for him "per se." Trans. 198:9-23. Plaintiff Sutton was able to pray in the dayroom at times and was permitted to return to his cell to pray "40 percent of the time . . . Maybe half and half." Trans. 199:10 - 200:21. Another Muslim former inmate at CFCF, Kevin Pickard, testified that he never had a problem praying in his cell. 142:11-13.

The trial record supports a finding that sufficient evidence underlies the jury's verdict and the motion for judgment ...


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