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Watson v. Christo

United States District Court, D. Delaware

March 25, 2019

DAVID M. WATSON, Plaintiff,
v.
GUS CHRISTO, et al., Defendants. DAVID M. WATSON, Plaintiff,
v.
JOSEPH SIMMONS and CHRISTOPHER SENATO, Defendants.

          Denise S. Kraft, Brian A. Biggs, Kaitlin M. Edelman, DLA PIPER LLP (US), Wilmington, DE. Attorneys for Plaintiff.

          Joseph C. Handlon, Stuart B. Drowos, Deputy Attorneys General, DELAWARE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Wilmington, DE. Attorneys for Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ANDREWS, U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Presently before the Court is Defendants' motion for summary judgment. (D.I. 62).[1] I have reviewed the parties' briefing. (D.I. 63, 67, 74), I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff is, and was at all relevant times, an inmate at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center ("VCC"), a Delaware prison. (D.I. 31 ¶ 2).

         Plaintiff filed a first pro se action on June 13, 2016, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff named the following VCC Defendants: Chaplain Gus Christo, Grievance Chairperson Katrina Burley, former Food Service Supervisor Joseph Simmons, former Food Service Administrator Michael Knight, Major John Brennan, Warden David Pierce, and Deputy Warden James Scarborough. Plaintiff alleged violations of his civil rights for being denied access to tefillin, a religious object, and for being temporarily denied a kosher diet. (D.I. 3).

         Plaintiff filed a second pro se action on March 31, 2017, also under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff alleged that, in response to his first suit, Simmons and current VCC Food Services Director Christopher Senato retaliated against him by reducing the variety of kosher meals at VCC. (C.A. No. 17-351-RGA, D.I. 3).

         The Court appointed counsel for Plaintiff in both actions. (D.I. 28).[2] The Court consolidated the cases, for pre-trial purposes, based on Plaintiffs amended complaints. (D.I. 34). Between the two actions, Plaintiff brings claims related to Defendants' (1) ongoing denial of tefillin, (2) denial of a kosher diet for approximately ten weeks, and (3) retaliation by reducing the variety of kosher meals. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that (1) by denying him tefillin, Defendants Christo, Burley, Pierce, Brennan, and Scarborough are violating his rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-l et seq. (D.I. 31 ¶¶ 32-37, 46-52), (2) by having denied him a kosher diet for ten weeks, Defendants Christo, Simmons, and Knight violated his rights under the First and Eighth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution (id. ¶¶ 38-45), and (3), by reducing the variety of kosher meals in retaliation for his first suit, Defendants Simmons and Senato violated his rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (CA. No. 17-351-RGA, D.I. 20 H32-40).[3]-[4]

         Fact discovery ended November 15, 2018. (D.I. 57). All parties except Knight were deposed. Plaintiff has also deposed current Food Services Administrator Wendal Lundy. (D.I. 63 at 2). The pretrial conference is scheduled for April 11, 2019. Jury trial is set to begin May 6, 2019. (D.I. 37, 72).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         "The 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 judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Material facts are those "that could affect the outcome" of the proceeding. Lamont v. New Jersey, 637 F.3d 177, 181 (3d Cir. 2011) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). "[A] dispute about a material fact is 'genuine' if the evidence is sufficient to permit a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. The burden on the moving party may be discharged by pointing out to the district court that there is an absence of evidence supporting the non-moving party's case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323(1986).

         The burden then shifts to the non-movant to demonstrate the existence of a genuine issue for trial. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986); Williams v. Borough of West Chester, Pa., 891 F.2d 458, 460-61 (3d Cir. 1989). A non-moving party asserting that a fact is genuinely disputed must support such an assertion by: "(A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations .. ., admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials; or (B) showing that the materials cited [by the opposing party] do not establish the absence ... of a genuine dispute . . . ." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). The non-moving party's evidence "must amount to more than a scintilla, but may amount to less (in the evaluation of the court) than a preponderance." Williams, 891 F.2d at 461.

         When determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Wishkin v. Potter, A16 F.3d 180, 184 (3d Cir. 2007). If the non-moving party fails to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of its case with respect to which it has the burden of proof, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Denial of Tefillin

         Tefillin is a religious item normally worn by adult Jewish males during their weekday morning prayers. A pair of tefillin consists of two small leather boxes containing parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah. Each box is attached to thick leather straps several feet in length. The straps are used to bind the boxes to the head and arm during prayer. (D.I. 68, Ex. 3 ¶¶ 11-14; D.I. 23, Ex. A; see also D.I. 63 at 7-8).

         Defendants have twice denied Plaintiffs request for tefillin. Plaintiff made his first request on April 9, 2016, in a letter to Chaplain Christo. (D.I. 64, A-98, A-7 at 32:3-6). Warden Pierce and Deputy Warden Scarborough discussed Plaintiffs request in a senior staff meeting.[5]The request was rejected for security reasons. (Id., A-109 at 8:8-9:23, A-238). According to Pierce, they were concerned that the tefillin's long leather straps could be misused, including "to tie up someone, either another inmate or staff member," "to secure a door or a fence," "for self-harm attempts," "to affix another weapon to one's body," or "to defeat razor wire in an escape attempt." (Id., A-l 10 at 10:21-12:6). Further, Plaintiff was housed in the maximum-security Residential Treatment Unit ("RTU"). (Id., A-l 12 at 11:15-12:23, A-98, A-7 at 32:7-21). The RTU is designated for mentally ill inmates requiring inpatient treatment. Inmates in the RTU are at a higher risk for misconduct than other inmates, including those in maximum security. (Id., A- 113 at 13:13-19). Plaintiff is in the RTU to receive treatment for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. (Id., A-2 at 6:6-21).

         Plaintiff filed a grievance on May 9, 2016, after his initial request was denied. The grievance was handled by Grievance Chairperson Burley. (Id., A-239, A-240).[6]

         In 2018, Defendants Scarborough and Brennan revisited Plaintiffs tefillin request in a meeting with current Warden Metzger. (Id., A-100 at 18:16-20:2, A-l 12 at 9:18-11:6). The request was denied because Plaintiff was still housed in the RTU and had recently escaped. (Id., A-101 at 21:7-22:16).[7] There was again concern about the tefillin leather straps, as well as use of the boxes as a weapon or to conceal contraband. (Id., A-102 at 35:2-23). Defendants considered possible accommodations to provide Plaintiff with limited access to tefillin, but ultimately determined that the security and staffing concerns were too great. Due to its maximum-security setting and uniquely challenging population, the RTU is "a very hectic and very labor-intensive unit."[8] (Id., A-103 at 31:7-32:3).

         VCC, as a whole, is also significantly understaffed, averaging over 800 overtime positions (8-hour shifts) a week to meet "minimum manning" requirements. (Id., A-106 at 61:16). Brennan explained that it would be unmanageable to dedicate two of his eleven RTU staff members for Plaintiffs daily use of tefillin. (Id., A-103 at 30:13-31:6). According to Plaintiffs religious beliefs, he is required to pray with tefillin each weekday morning for approximately ten to twenty minutes. (D.I. 68, Ex. 3 ¶ 16). Scarborough stated that if Plaintiff was flexible in when he used the tefillin, VCC "could probably find a time frame to make it happen," but there would be no guarantee because "things happen that cause a security alert [and] cause [the] staff to be diverted." (Id., Ex. 5 at 86:24-87:13).

         Finding a suitable location to store and to use the tefillin would also be difficult. The chapel, where other religious devices are stored and used under supervision, is in the lower security part of VCC and not equipped for maximum-security inmates like Plaintiff. (D.I. 64, A-104 at 33:13-34:5). The RTU has some secure rooms, but they are primarily used by mental health professionals to treat inmates in distress. (Id., A-103 at 29:18-30:4). VCC would not allow the tefillin to be stored in Plaintiffs cell for concern of misuse. (Id., A-103 at 29:5-17, 32:4-20).

         1. RLUIPA

         RLUIPA gives religious exercise heightened protection against government burdens. Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709, 714 (2005). Section 3, which ...


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