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Burns v. Buncich

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division

April 11, 2017

ROBERT BURNS, Plaintiff,
v.
LAKE COUNTY INDIANA SHERIFF JOHN BUNCICH, et al., [1]Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          William C. Lee, Judge United States District Court

         This matter is before the Court on the motion for summary judgment and memorandum in support filed by Defendants Mac McClesky and Larry Chase (docket entries 96 and 97). Plaintiff Robert Burns filed a response in opposition to the motion and a supplemental response (DE 100 and 102), and the Defendants filed a reply (DE 104). The Defendants also filed a motion to strike, asking the Court to strike Burns's pleadings in opposition to the summary judgment motion (DE 103). Burns did not file a response to that motion. For the reasons discussed below, the motion to strike is DENIED and the motion for summary judgment is GRANTED in part, DENIED in part, and MOOT in part. The motion is denied as to Plaintiff's claim against the Defendants, in their individual capacities, for violation of his constitutional right to the free exercise of his religion; the motion is granted as to Plaintiff's claims against the Defendants in their official capacities and those claims are dismissed; and the motion is moot as to Plaintiff's claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). This case will be set for a scheduling conference by separate entry.

         BACKGROUND

         Burns, proceeding pro se, was incarcerated in the Lake County Jail from January of 2011 through December of 2012. Burns asserts in his Amended Complaint that he is a Jehovah's Witness and that McClesky and Chase, who served as chaplains in the Lake County Jail, infringed on his right to practice his religion while he was incarcerated in the Jail. Amended Complaint, p. 3. More specifically, Burns alleges that McClesky and Chase expressed disapproval of Burns's religious beliefs (id.); that they ignored his repeated written requests (ten of them, he says, between January 1, 2011, and July 10, 2011) to be permitted to attend worship services with other Jehovah's Witnesses (id.); that they forced Burns to worship in a hallway or crowded, noisy holding cell (while his minister sat outside the cell) rather than in the Jail's chapel (id., p. 4); that they denied him visits with his minister (id.); and that they maintained a policy that inmates who were Jehovah's Witnesses had to be placed on a list to attend services, but that no such requirement was imposed on inmates of other religions (id., pp. 7-8). Burns states that he “was in Lake County Jail for 94 weeks, but I [was] only allow[ed] to go to service about 20 times, and sometimes we had to have service through a crack in the door.” Id., p. 6. He also states that he sent numerous letters and filed numerous prison grievances concerning these matters, but that the Defendants ignored them. Id. Burns brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting that McClesky and Chase's actions “violated my 1st and 14th Amendment rights.” Id. Burns seeks compensatory and punitive damages for the alleged constitutional violations. Id., p. 5. He also, arguably, states a claim under the RLUIPA, as discussed below.

         Defendants Chase and McClesky contend that they are entitled to summary judgment on Burns's claim of religious discrimination for two reasons: first, “because of the lack of personal involvement by Chase and McClesky[]” in the Jail's alleged discriminatory policies or procedures; and second because “the policies of the Lake County Jail did not discriminate against Burns on the basis of his standing as a Jehovah's Witness.” Defendants' Memorandum, p. 1. In short, the Defendants contend that they had no authority and played no role in establishing or modifying the Jail's policy regarding religious accommodation and so cannot be held liable in their official capacity, and that they lacked the requisite personal involvement in the alleged constitutional violations and so cannot be held liable in their individual capacities. Chase and McClesky assert that “there is no evidence regarding any personal involvement giving rise to liability for Chase and McClesky because the institution, i.e. the Lake County Jail, as well as those persons in charge of said institution are the policy makers regarding who, what, when and where [a] detainee at the Lake County jail exercises his faith.” Id. If Chase and McClesky had no direct involvement in the alleged unconstitutional conduct, they cannot be sued under § 1983. “Liability under Section 1983 is predicated on a defendant's personal involvement in the alleged constitutional violation.” Jones v. Gaetz, 2017 WL 1132560, at *5 (S.D. Ill. Mar. 27, 2017) (citing Palmer v. Marion Cnty., 327 F.3d 588, 594 (7th Cir. 2003)).

         The Defendants argue that neither they nor Jail policy interfered with Burns's ability to worship as a Jehovah's Witness and that Burns's complaints are “based entirely on the manner in which he was able to worship his faith . . . not on an alleged denial to worship.” Defendants' Memorandum, p. 5 (italics added). They concede that “[p]risoners have a right to exercise their religion under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. . . .” but they also note that “[n]evertheless, restrictions that limit the exercise of religion are permissible if they are reasonably related to legitimate penological objectives . . . .” Id. (citations omitted). The Defendants argue that any obstacles Burns might have faced regarding the exercise of his religion were the result of reasonable penological restrictions related to jail administration rather than any policy that discriminated against any inmate on the basis of his religious preference. Id., generally. They point out that courts must give “‘due deference to the experience and expertise of prison and jail administrators in establishing necessary regulations and procedures to maintain good order, security and discipline, consistent with consideration of costs and limited resources.'” Id, p. 8 (quoting Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709, 723 (2005)). The Defendants contend that the impediments or obstacles that Burns says placed a “substantial burden” on his ability to practice his religion were in fact only inconveniences, that they did not prevent him from worshiping as a Jehovah's Witness anytime he wanted, and that his allegation that these inconveniences constituted a “substantial burden” is based only on his subjective belief that he was the victim of a discriminatory Jail policy or was treated unfairly by Chase and McClesky, who Burns claims were personally biased against Jehovah's Witnesses. The Defendants contend that the scheduling of religious services and religious visits in the Jail must be done in a manner that takes into consideration the Jail's resources, security concerns, and disciplinary concerns. Id.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment is appropriate when the record shows that there is “no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56©; Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Disputes concerning material facts are genuine where the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In deciding whether genuine issues of material fact exist, the court construes all facts in a light most favorable to the non-moving party and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. See Id. at 255. However, neither the “mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties, ” id., 477 U.S. at 247, nor the existence of “some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, ” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986), will defeat a motion for summary judgment. Michas v. Health Cost Controls of Ill., Inc., 209 F.3d 687, 692 (7th Cir. 2000).

         Summary judgment is not a substitute for a trial on the merits nor is it a vehicle for resolving factual disputes. Waldridge v. Am. Hoechst Corp., 24 F.3d 918, 920 (7th Cir. 1994). Therefore, after drawing all reasonable inferences from the facts in favor of the non-movant, if genuine doubts remain and a reasonable fact-finder could find for the party opposing the motion, summary judgment is inappropriate. See Shields Enterprises, Inc. v. First Chicago Corp., 975 F.2d 1290, 1294 (7th Cir. 1992); Wolf v. City of Fitchburg, 870 F.2d 1327, 1330 (7th Cir. 1989). If it is clear that a plaintiff will be unable to satisfy the legal requirements necessary to establish his or her case, summary judgment is not only appropriate, but mandated. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322; Ziliak v. AstraZeneca LP, 324 F.3d 518, 520 (7th Cir. 2003).

         Finally, since Burns is proceeding pro se, the court is required to liberally construe his complaint. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972). See also, McCormick v. City of Chicago, 230 F.3d 319, 325 (7th Cir. 2000) (“It is well-settled law that pro se complaints are to be liberally construed and not held to the stringent standards expected of pleadings drafted by lawyers.”).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Motion to strike.

         The Defendants argue that Burns's pleadings in opposition to the motion for summary judgment should be stricken because they were filed more than two weeks after the deadline set in Federal Rule 56 and Local Rule 56-1. Motion to Strike (DE 103), p. 1. They note that “the time limit for filing the Plaintiff's Response was on or before 28 days from November 17, 2016, ” which was the date the Defendants served Burns with a notice of their motion. Id. (see Notice of Summary Judgment Motion (DE 50)). The Court also sent Burns a notice explaining that the Defendants were seeking summary judgment on his claims. Notice and Order (DE 51). Those two notices included detailed information and instructions to assist Burns, given his pro se status, in responding to the motion. As the Defendants correctly point out, “[a]lthough pro se parties are entitled to some procedural protection, including liberal construal of documents, even pro se parties must comply with procedural rules.” Motion to Strike, p. 2. The Defendants emphasize that “[i]t is ‘well established that pro se litigants are not excused from compliance with procedural rules.'” Id. (quoting Pearle Vision, Inc. v. Romm, 541 F.3d 751, 758 (7th Cir. 2008)). As stated at the outset, Burns did not respond to the motion to strike.

         The Court concludes that striking Burns' most recent pleadings because they were two weeks late would be an unnecessarily harsh sanction for several reasons. First, Burns is proceeding pro se, and he has actively litigated this case from its inception, which includes making numerous filings, responding to numerous defense motions and court orders, and participating in discovery-all with no history of dilatory conduct. Also, striking Burns's recent pleadings would have no practical effect since they largely just mirror or duplicate arguments and items of purported evidence that Burns has submitted in this case before.[2] So, even though Burns was about two weeks tardy filing his response, it is difficult to see how the Defendants suffered any harm or prejudice as a result-and, in fact, they do not argue that they have been prejudiced. The Defendants even concede in their reply brief that “Burns's reply to Defendant's motion to summary judgment is a virtual rehashing of his complaint[.]” Defendants' Reply, p. 2. For these reasons, striking Burns's pleadings is not warranted, the Court will consider them for purposes of the motion for summary judgment, and the motion to strike is DENIED.[3]

         II. Motion for summary judgment.

         While neither party cites it, discusses it, or even mentions it anywhere in their briefs, this case is a mirror image of Roy v. Dominguez, 2012 WL 279485 (N.D.Ind. Jan. 31, 2012). The plaintiff in that case, also a Jehovah's Witness, sued the Lake County sheriff and others alleging his religious rights were violated while he was incarcerated at the Lake County Jail. He sought damages under § 1983 and injunctive relief under the RLUIPA. This Court (Judge Moody)

         summarized Roy's claim as follows:

The crux of the claim set out in Roy's amended complaint is that he is a Jehovah's Witness, and that defendants violated his federally protected rights when they did not allow Jehovah's Witnesses to conduct group worship in the jail chapel located on the jail's third floor even though other denominations were allowed to do so, and when they made it difficult for his minister to give him spiritual guidance.

Roy, 2012 WL 279485, at *1. The resolution of the present motion for summary judgment likewise mirrors Judge Moody's holdings in Roy, and for the same reasons. It is understandable that the Defendants would not be anxious to shine a light on the Roy case, but they avoid it altogether instead of trying to distinguish it. On the other hand, there isn't much to distinguish, since that case dealt with the same issues, the same applicable law, and even the same basic underlying facts![4] Then there's the fact that the same law firm and same attorneys acted as defense counsel in both cases. Be all that as it may, the present summary judgment must be granted in part, denied in part, and mooted in part for the reasons discussed in this order, and the Roy case helps explain why.

         Burns has filed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of pages of written pleadings and purported supporting documents over the course of this litigation. As is often the case with pro se plaintiffs, who feel compelled to provide lengthy and detailed accounts of their claims and the facts underlying them, his many pleadings are often duplicative and repetitive. But the sole issue in this case is whether Defendants Chase and McClesky, in their individual capacities, official capacities, or both, unreasonably infringed on Burns's constitutional right to exercise his religion while he was incarcerated in the Lake County Jail. On that issue, Burns's extensive pleadings recount the many obstacles he claims he faced when trying to exercise that right. He argues that those obstacles-imposed by the Defendants-prevented him from freely practicing his religion, and he seeks both compensatory and punitive damages for this alleged constitutional violation.

         Because Burns was incarcerated when he filed his Amended Complaint, the Court was required to “screen” the Complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A “and dismiss it if the action is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim, or seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief. To survive dismissal, a complaint must state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.” Stone v. Levenhagen, 2014 WL 4199282, at *1 (N.D. Ind. Aug. 25, 2014) (citing Bissessur v. Indiana Univ. Bd. of Trs., 581 F.3d 599, 602 (7th Cir. 2009)). The Court did that and issued an order on September 29, 2014 (DE 25) granting Burns “leave to proceed against Chaplain Larry Chase and Chaplain Mac McClesky in their individual and official capacities for compensatory and punitive damages for denying and interfering with his right to communal worship as a Jehovah's Witness at the Lake County Jail in violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.” Court Order, p. 3. The RLUIPA “prohibits correctional facilities receiving federal funds from imposing a substantial burden on an inmate's religious exercise unless prison officials can demonstrate ‘that imposition of the burden on that person: (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.'” Joseph v. Superintendent, 2017 WL 1196827, at *3 (N.D.Ill. Mar. 31, 2017) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a)(1)-(2)). The Court permitted Burns to proceed on an RLUIPA claim because he included the following language in his Amended Complaint:

I'm suing Mac [McClesky and] Chase . . . to have the Jehovah's Witnesses restored to their original religious freedom they once shared by being able to freeley [sic] go throughout the old & new Jail building counseling inmates. I'm suing . . . to have Jehovah's Witnesses' rights respected and to have my rights honored.

         Amended Complaint, p. 5. Since that language could be construed as a request for some sort of equitable relief, the Court concluded that Burns had stated a claim under the RLUIPA, at least sufficiently to survive the § 1915 initial screening. On closer examination, however, it is clear that any claim under the RLUIPA that Burns arguably included in his Amended Complaint is moot. (It is not clear whether Burns really intended to include such a claim in the first place, as discussed below.) The Court will address this claim first.

         A. RLUIPA claim.

         Burns's Amended Complaint, as well as all of his other pleadings including his most recent, are devoted almost exclusively to explaining how the Defendants allegedly interfered with his ability to practice his religion by not respecting his wishes to worship in the Jail chapel, not letting him attend services more frequently, and not letting him visit with his ministers more frequently. Aside from the two sentences quoted above, Burns makes no argument or pleas for equitable or injunctive relief. His request for money damages, on the other hand, is unambiguous: he seeks $100, 000.00 from each Defendant as compensatory damages and the same amount from each as punitive damages. Amended Complaint, p. 5. A plaintiff asserting a claim under the RLUIPA, however, is entitled only to injunctive relief, not money damages. See Sossamon v. Texas, 563 U.S. 277, 288 (2011) (RLUIPA does not permit claims for money damages against states or prison officials in their official capacity); Vinning-El v. Evans, 657 F.3d 591, 592 (7th Cir. 2011) (RLUIPA does not permit recovery of money damages against prison officials in their individual capacities); Nelson v. Miller, 570 F.3d 868, 886-89 (7th Cir. 2009) (same). In this case, Burns has pleaded a claim pursuant to § 1983 and he seeks money damages. He has not pleaded sufficient facts to support a claim for relief under the RLUIPA and presents no argument in support of a request for equitable relief.

         Also, Burns's request that Jehovah's Witness adherents should be permitted “to [freely] go throughout the old [and] new Jail building counseling inmates, ” considered in light of his complaint that he was deprived of the ability to counsel directly with a Jehovah's Witness minister, could be construed as a request for equitable relief asking the Court to order the Lake County Jail to permit Jehovah's Witness ministers greater access to the Jail to ensure that “Jehovah's Witnesses' rights [are] respected.” This is not a valid basis for any claim because Burns has no standing to seek relief on behalf of others. Judge Moody noted the same thing in Roy, holding that “Roy . . . suggests that he seeks to vindicate the rights of his group and of other ...


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