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Frazier v. Florida Department of Corrections

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Jacksonville Division

September 14, 2017




         I. Status

         Plaintiff is an inmate confined in the Florida penal system. He initiated the case, pro se, by filing a Complaint (Doc. 2) in the Circuit Court of the Eighth Judicial Circuit, in and for Bradford County, Florida on March 12, 2014. Defendants removed the case to this Court. See Notice of Removal (Doc. 1). Plaintiff is represented by counsel and is proceeding on the Amended Complaint of Kelvin Frazier (Amended Complaint) (Doc. 45) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc (RLUIPA).

         This cause is before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Motion) (Doc. 63). Plaintiff responded. See Summary Judgment Notice (Doc. 64); Plaintiff's Response in Opposition to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Response) (Doc. 72); Plaintiff's Notice of Filing Documents in Support of Its Response to Defendant's Summary Judgment Motion (Notice) (Doc. 73).[1] Defendant filed a Reply to Plaintiff's Response to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Reply) (Doc. 84).

         II. Summary Judgment Standard

         "Summary judgment is appropriate only 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.'" Moton v. Cowart, 631 F.3d 1337, 1341 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)). "If the moving party meets this burden, 'the nonmoving party must present evidence beyond the pleadings showing that a reasonable jury could find in its favor.'" Ekokotu v. Federal Exp. Corp., 408 F.App'x 331, 333 (11th Cir.) (per curiam) (quoting Fickling v. United States, 507 F.3d 1302, 1304 (11th Cir. 2007)), cert. denied, 565 U.S. 944 (2011).

         Defendant contends that the Amended Complaint should be dismissed as Plaintiff's claims are now moot. Motion at 1, 7-8. Also, to the extent that Plaintiff is now making an argument that he has a problem with his kosher diet, Defendant asserts that Plaintiff has failed to exhaust administrative remedies. Id. at 8 n.4. Plaintiff counters that summary judgment is improper because he has not been provided "with healthy kosher meals." Response at 7. Plaintiff contends the case is not moot because "Defendant's unwillingness to provide a healthy, balanced kosher meal demonstrates its lack of conviction to the kosher program and along with the timing of the decision to provide Plaintiff kosher meals (years after this action was filed), further demonstrates the Court should not determine the case is moot." Id. at 7-8. Plaintiff submits that his argument for the provision of healthy meals is not a new claim because his "right to a healthy meal is part and parcel of and implicit in the right to a kosher meal." Id. at 7 n.2.

         III. The Amended Complaint

         At the time of the filing of the Amended Complaint Plaintiff was confined at Florida State Prison West (FSP).[2] Amended Complaint at 1. He practices the Jewish faith, and keeping kosher in his dietary needs is a key component of the practice of his faith. Id. Plaintiff alleges that despite numerous attempts to obtain kosher meals, he has been unable to do so over the years. Id. Plaintiff recognizes, however, that since the filing of his original Complaint, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida (S.D. Fla.), in United States v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., et al., Case No. 1:12-cv-22958-PAS, entered a Final Judgment and Permanent Injunction (Judgment) (Doc. 548) regarding an institution-wide kosher meal program.[3] Amended Complaint at 1-2.

         Plaintiff states that he was provisionally approved for kosher meals back in April 2013, but he was required to complete a 90-day sincerity test (now discontinued). Id. at 2. Before he could complete the 90-day test, he was transferred to a different institution within the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC). Id. Plaintiff states that frequent transfers and changing rules impeded his ability to obtain kosher meals since 2013. Id.

         Plaintiff alleges that despite his sincere religious basis for keeping kosher, the FDOC forced Plaintiff to violate his beliefs in violation of RLUIPA. Id. He contends that the FDOC's refusal to accommodate this central tenet of Judaism substantially burdens the exercise of Plaintiff's religious right to practice his faith. Id. Plaintiff claims that the FDOC's refusal to provide kosher meals and/or practice of constantly moving Plaintiff and changing program requirements was done with the intent to violate RLUIPA or in reckless disregard to Plaintiff's religious practice. Id. Plaintiff asserts that the FDOC continues to deny him a kosher diet, and the frequently changing rules make it practically impossible for him to comply with the new application procedures. Id.

         Based upon these allegations, Plaintiff raises a First Amendment claim and also a claim for violation of RLUIPA. Id. at 4. In support, he states that the FDOC's dietary policies are not necessary to achieve any compelling state interest. Id. Plaintiff contends that he has a sincere religious basis for keeping kosher. Id. at 5. He notes that the S.D. Fla. has ordered FDOC to provide a system-wide kosher diet. Id. Plaintiff states that despite this order, the FDOC continues to deny a kosher diet to Plaintiff "under the pretext that he has not applied for one, or for other, unknown but improper reasons." Id. at 7. In conclusion, Plaintiff says he "just needs to be placed on a kosher food plan." Id.

         IV. Claims for Relief

         In his first claim for relief, Plaintiff claims Defendant's refusal to provide kosher meals to Plaintiff violates RLUIPA. Amended Compliant at 8. In support of this claim, he states that he has been denied kosher meals from 2013 to present. Id. He explains that the FDOC currently denies Plaintiff a kosher diet despite his sincere religious beliefs requiring he keep kosher. Id. Plaintiff asserts that Defendant's failure to provide a kosher diet substantially burdens Plaintiff's free exercise of religion without a compelling reason to do so. Id. He contends that this failure does not further a compelling governmental interest, and is not the least restrictive means to do so. Id.

         In his second claim for relief, Plaintiff claims the Defendant's policy of refusing to provide Plaintiff with kosher meals violates Plaintiff's First Amendment right to practice Judaism. Id.

         As relief, Plaintiff seeks declaratory relief that the Defendant violated RLUIPA "by failing to offer kosher meals to inmates in their custody who desire a kosher diet to exercise their religious beliefs[, ]" and the Defendant violated section 1983 "by violating Frazier's right to practice his religion by denying him kosher meals[.]" Id. at 9. Plaintiff also seeks injunctive relief ordering Defendant "to provide nutritionally sufficient kosher meals to Frazier[.]" Id. Finally, Plaintiff asks for "such other relief as the interests of justice may require." Id.

         V. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

         Title 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a) provides: "No action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 of this title, or any other Federal law, by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted." Thus, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) requires exhaustion of available administrative remedies before an action with respect to prison conditions by a prisoner may be initiated in this Court. Defendant moves to dismiss the Amended Complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). The Defendant asserts that Plaintiff failed to properly avail himself of the grievance process with regard to his claim that the kosher meals being served are not nutritionally adequate or a problematic. Motion at 8 n.4.

         In this instance, Defendant bears the burden of proving a failure to exhaust available administrative remedies. Turner v. Burnside, 541 F.3d 1077, 1082-83 (11th Cir. 2008), relying on Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199 (2007). Guidelines are provided for reviewing a prisoner civil rights action for exhaustion compliance:

Before a prisoner may bring a prison-conditions suit under § 1983, the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 requires that he exhaust all available administrative remedies. 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a); see also Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731, 736, 121 S.Ct. 1819, 1822, 149 L.Ed.2d 958 (2001). The purpose of the PLRA's exhaustion requirement is to "afford corrections officials time and opportunity to address complaints internally before allowing the initiation of a federal case." Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 93, 126 S.Ct. 2378, 2387, 165 L.Ed.2d 368 (2006) (quotation omitted). To properly exhaust, a prisoner must "[c]ompl[y] with prison grievance procedures." Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 218, 127 S.Ct. 910, 922-23, 166 L.Ed.2d 798 (2007).

Whatley v. Warden, Ware State Prison, 802 F.3d 1205, 1208 (11th Cir. 2015).

         A number of factors guide the Court. Initially, the Court recognizes that exhaustion of available administrative remedies is "a precondition to an adjudication on the merits" and is mandatory under the PLRA. Bryant v. Rich, 530 F.3d 1368, 1374 (11th Cir.), cert. denied, 555 U.S. 1074 (2008); Jones, 549 U.S. at 211; Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 85 (2006) ("Exhaustion is no longer left to the discretion of the district court, but is mandatory.") (citation omitted). The Supreme Court has stated that "failure to exhaust is an affirmative defense under the PLRA[.]" Jones, 549 U.S. at 216. Although, "the PLRA exhaustion requirement is not jurisdictional[, ]" Woodford, 548 U.S. at 101, "exhaustion is mandatory under the PLRA[;]" ...

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