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Williams v. Nish

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

January 7, 2015

JOSEPH P. NISH, et al., Defendants.


SYLVIA H. RAMBO, District Judge.

Pro se Plaintiff Ronald C. Williams commenced this action by filing a complaint on March 1, 2011 (Doc. 1), followed by an amended complaint on July 1, 2011 (Doc. 16). In the amended complaint, Plaintiff alleged violations of his First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The case was referred to former Magistrate Judge Malachy E. Mannion, now United States District Court Judge, for preliminary review.

On February 29, 2012, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. (Doc. 46.) On August 7, 2012, Judge Mannion issued a report recommending that Defendants' motion be granted as to most of Plaintiff's claims, but denied as to Plaintiff's claims related to (1) prayer and smudging (blessing) ceremonies, and (2) the disposal of ceremonial seeds, referred to as "Three Sisters." (Doc. 60.) On October 16, 2012, the court adopted Judge Mannion's report and recommendation. (Doc. 68.) On February 22, 2013, the court adopted a report from Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson recommending that the case be listed for trial, and scheduled trial for May 13, 2013. (Doc. 77.) In the meantime, defense counsel withdrew their appearances from this matter (Docs. 76 & 80), and new defense counsel entered their appearances (Docs. 75 & 79). On April 18, 2013, new defense counsel filed a motion for leave to file a renewed motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 92.) On April 19, 2013, the court granted Defendants' motion, accepted the renewed motion for summary judgment, and continued jury selection and trial. (Doc. 93.)

The renewed motion became ripe on June 6, 2013, when Defendants filed a reply brief (Doc. 94). However, in the interim, Williams filed another action, Williams v. Givens, et al., assigned to docket number 1:13-CV-0387, in which he alleged violations of the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments claiming the Defendants destroyed documents and materials related to the captioned case. As a result of the filing of the new case, an order issued on June 28, 2013, deferring disposition of the pending renewed motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 107.)

By order dated January 5, 2015 in case number 1:13-CV-0387, this court granted Defendants' motion for summary judgment. The renewed motion for summary judgment in the captioned case is now ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, Defendants' motion will be granted.

I. Background

At this point, only two claims remain before the court: (1) Plaintiff's claim that he and other Native Americans were forced to conduct prayer and smudging ceremonies outdoors in cold or adverse weather conditions; and (2) Plaintiff's claim related to the destruction and failure to replace the Three Sisters seeds, which are used as ceremonial relics in the Native American religion. Judge Mannion's report and recommendation granting in part and denying in part summary judgment provided a detailed recitation of the factual background that precipitated this action. ( See Doc. 60.) Accordingly, for present purposes, it is sufficient to state the following summary of relevant facts.

A. Facts[1]

Smudging is a Native American practice that involves burning tobacco products to cleanse and pray. (Doc. 60, p. 3.) Plaintiff claims that he was forced to conduct smudging ceremonies outdoors during inclement weather, and that ceremonies were cancelled by prison officials on several occasions. ( Id. at pp. 13, 14; see also Plaintiff's Response to Status Report, Doc. 83.) Plaintiff alleges in his amended complaint that "the practice of relegating all Native American worship services to the outdoors in whatever weather conditions, ... constitutes a violation of the Plaintiff's right to the Free Exercise of religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment...." (Doc. 16, ¶ 17.) According to Plaintiff's verified response to Defendants' status report (Doc. 83), indoor ceremonies were permitted on four occasions between January and March 2013.

The "Three Sisters" are corn, bean, and squash seeds that serve as religious relics. The seeds, which had been provided by an outside organization, were discarded by prison staff. (Doc. 60, p. 6.) This prompted Plaintiff to file an inmate grievance, which was upheld by the grievance officer. ( Id. ; see also Doc. 98, Defendants' Statement of Material Facts ("SMF"), ¶ 8.) In upholding the grievance, the prison agreed to replace the seeds and adopt procedures to ensure appropriate handling and storage of sacred relics used by the Native American Community. ( Id. ) Plaintiff claims in his amended complaint that the replacement seeds were never distributed, in violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of religion, and the proposed procedures were never adopted, in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Doc. 16, ¶¶ 13, 22; Doc. 60, p. 6.) On February 1, 2013, the Religious Activities Procedures Manual, Administrative Directive 819 (DC-ADM 819) was amended to permit inmates to maintain and store the Three Sisters in their cells as an alternative to storage of the seeds in the prison's Property Room. (SMF ¶¶ 13-17; Doc. 98, Attachment 2.)

B. Procedural History

On April 19, 2013, the court continued the trial scheduled to commence on May 13, 2013, and accepted for filing Defendants' renewed motion for summary judgment. (Docs. 93 & 94.) On April 26, 2013, Defendants filed a brief in support and statement of material facts. (Docs. 97 & 98.) On May 23, 2013, Plaintiff filed a brief in opposition to the motion and an affidavit in support of the brief in opposition. (Docs. 103 & 104.) On June 6, 2013, Defendants filed a reply brief. (Doc. 105.) Thus, the motion is ripe for disposition. On June 27, 2013, Plaintiff, without seeking leave of court as required by M.D. Pa. Local Rule 7.7, filed a "final" reply brief. (Doc. 106.) In consideration of Plaintiff's pro se status, the court has accepted and reviewed the brief.

II. Standard

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 sets forth the standard and procedures for the grant of summary judgment. Rule 56(a) provides, "[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. Fed R. Civ. P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-323 (1986). A factual dispute is "material" if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A factual dispute is "genuine" only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis that would allow a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict for the non-moving party. Id. at 248. When evaluating a motion for summary judgment, a ...

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