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Baker v. Parsons

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

July 29, 2019

GARY STEVEN BAKER, JR. Plaintiff,
v.
M. PARSONS, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER

          MARY S. SCRIVEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This cause comes before the Court on Defendants M. Parsons and A. Taylor's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 63), Plaintiff Gary Steven Baker, Jr.'s response (Doc. 66), and Defendants' reply (Doc. 73). Also before the Court is Plaintiff's cross-motion for summary judgment (Doc. 64) and appendix thereto (Doc. 65), Defendants' response (Doc. 67), and Plaintiff's reply. (Doc. 69) Having considered the motions and being otherwise fully advised, the Court ORDERS that Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 64) is DENIED, and Defendants' motion for summary judgment (Doc. 63) is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Baker brings this action under Title 42 United States Code Section 1983, alleging that, while confined in the Hardee Correctional Institution, Defendants violated Baker's (1) right to exercise his religion, and (2) right to equal protection. He also asserts that Defendants violated his rights under the Religious Land Use of Institutional Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1, and under Florida's Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1998 (“FRFRA”), Fla. Stat. § 761.03.

         Generally, Plaintiff claims that Defendants have improperly denied his requests to possess or use items of alleged significance to his Mystic faith. He also claims that Defendant Parsons refused to assist Plaintiff in observing a sacred religious fast. Finally, he contends that Defendants have, on the basis of his religion, denied him access to the chapel and denied his request to schedule a Mysticism study group. He seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, [1] along with nominal damages.

         An earlier order dismissed Plaintiff's claims against Defendants Lawrence, Mount, and Bowden. (Doc. 41 at 6-7) At this stage of the proceedings, the only remaining defendants in this case are M. Parsons (Chaplain) and Alex Taylor (Administrator of Chaplaincy Services, Florida Department of Corrections (“DOC”)).

         The Court notes that, upon review, the complaint does not clearly specify whether Plaintiff is suing Defendants in their official or individual capacities. “[W]hile it is ‘clearly preferable' that a plaintiff state explicitly in what capacity defendants are being sued, ‘failure to do so is not fatal if the course of proceedings otherwise indicates that the defendant received sufficient notice.' ” Young v. Apartments, Inc. v. Town of Jupiter, FL, 529 F.3d 1027, 1047 (11th Cir. 2008) (quoting Moore v. City of Harriman, 272 F.3d 769, 772 (6th Cir.2001)).

         Defendants inferred from the Complaint that Plaintiff sued them in both capacities. (Doc. 63 at 4, 19, 21-23) However, in his response to Defendants' motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff clarifies that he asserts RLUIPA claims against Defendants in their official capacities (Doc. 66 at 3, 10, 11, 21) and he asserts free exercise, equal protection, and FRFRA claims against Defendants in their individual capacities. (Doc. 66 at 11-12, 21-22) Therefore, Plaintiff has affirmatively repudiated individual capacity RLUIPA claims and official capacity free exercise, equal protection, and FRFRA claims against Defendants. Accordingly, Defendants' motion for summary judgment on those claims - to the extent the complaint could have been construed to raise them - is GRANTED.

         II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT

         The granting of summary judgment is proper “if pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact[2] and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. See In re Optical Technologies, Inc., 246 F.3d 1332, 1334 (11th Cir. 2001). A court must view the documents in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and the documents must show that the non-moving party is not entitled to relief under any set of facts alleged in the complaint. See generally, Allen v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 121 F.3d 642 (11th Cir. 1997); Jeffery v. Sarasota White Sox, Inc., 64 F.3d 590 (11th Cir. 1995).

         “Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment . . . against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). “In such a situation, there can be ‘no genuine issue as to any material fact,' since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Id. at 322-23.

         Where the non-moving party bears the burden of proof on an issue at trial, “the moving party [is not required to] support its motion with affidavits or other similar materials negating the [non-moving party's] claim.” Id. at 323 (emphasis in original). Instead, the movant simply “bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of ‘the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Id.

         Once the movant presents evidence that, if not controverted, would entitle the movant to a judgment at trial, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to assert specific facts demonstrating the existence of a genuine issue of fact for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986); Pennington v. City of Huntsville, 261 F.3d 1262 (11th Cir. 2001).

         Even though an allegation in a pro se complaint is held to a less stringent standard than a formal pleading drafted by a lawyer, Haines, 404 U.S. 520, Tannenbaum v. United States, 148 F.3d 1262 (11th Cir. 1998), the plaintiff's allegations must have factual support. “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff.” Burger King Corp. v. Weaver, 169 F.3d 1310, 1321 (11th Cir.) reh'g and suggestion for reh'g en banc denied, 182 F.3d 938 (11th Cir.), cert. dismissed, 528 U.S. 948 (1999). “A court need not permit a case to go to a jury, however, when the inferences that are drawn from the evidence, and upon which the non-movant relies, are ‘implausible.' “ Cuesta v. School Bd. of Miami-Dade County, 285 F.3d 962, 970 (11th Cir. 2002). See also Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986).

         III. UNDISPUTED FACTS

         Upon review of the record, the following facts appear uncontested:

         1. At all times relevant to this lawsuit, Plaintiff was, and remains, housed at Hardee Correctional Institution (“HCI”). (Doc. 1 at 1; Doc. 42 at 1)

         2. At all times relevant to this lawsuit, Defendant M. Parsons was employed as the Chaplain at HCI. (Doc. 1 at 3; Doc. 42 at 1)

         3. At all times relevant to this lawsuit, Defendant Alex Taylor was employed by the Department of Corrections as the Administrator of Chaplaincy Services. (Doc. 1 at 4; Doc. 42 at 1)

         4. Prison chaplains “must work with and accommodate numerous religions that are different from the chaplain[']s own beliefs, ” and space designated for religious activities must be shared by all inmates at HCI. (Doc. 63 Ex. 1 at 6)

         5. Prior to the events challenged in the instant lawsuit, Plaintiff identified his religion as Odinism. (Doc. 64 at 2) While observing that religion, HCI officials confiscated Plaintiff's lighter from his cell as part of a shake-down for contraband. (Doc. 64 at 6; Doc. 63 at 20)

         6. On October 3, 2011, Plaintiff wrote to Defendant Parsons, Chaplain at HCI, requesting “access to, or the information pertaining to[, ] what all the religion Mysticism is allowed to practice, receive, medallion to wear, e[tc].” He explained that he “would like to know all this before changing my faith, if I so do choose to in the future.” (Doc. 63 Ex. 1 at 12; Doc. 65 Ex. 11 at 2)

a. Defendant Parsons respo1nded, [3] “Currently there is no information through DOC regarding this religion.” (Doc. 63 Ex. 1 at 12; Doc. 65 Ex. 11 at 2)

         7. Sometime thereafter, Plaintiff changed his religious affiliation to Mysticism and submitted the paperwork to change his listed affiliation with HCI.[4]

         8. The DOC recognizes Mysticism as a religion but has established no guidelines as to the practice of Mysticism. (Doc. 63 Ex. 1 at 2; Doc. 67 at 5)

         9. On October 18, 2011, Plaintiff submitted the following request to Defendant Parsons (Doc. 63 Ex. 1 at 13; Doc. 65 Ex. 3 at 2):

Sir, I spoke to you when I changed my religion to Mysticism. You told me that you would deny everything I requested or tried to get in. I have already written Alex Taylor concerning this issue and what I need to be able to pray as . . . “God” tells me to pray, when to pray and how. Since they have taken lighters off the compound, and I need to light incense during prayer, I am requesting access to the chapel to pray and meditate 8 times a day, 4 times will be the same every day, the other four will change daily. I will need access to a lighter, or one match per prayer. If you have any questions, please call me up for exact times.
a. Defendant Parsons responded, “At this point it is not possible for you or anyone to come into the chapel to pray 4-8 times a day[.] We will await a response from Mr. Taylor.” (Doc. 63 Ex. 1 at 13; Doc. 65 Ex. 3 at 2)

         10. Defendant Taylor recalls that Defendant Parsons contacted him during the fall of 2011 concerning Mysticism. Defendant Parsons contacted him by telephone or email, and he responded by telephone.[5] (Doc. 63 Ex. 1 at 5)

         11. Defendant Taylor did not communicate with Plaintiff. (Doc. 64 at 2)

         12. On October 25, 2011, Plaintiff submitted the following request to Defendant Parsons (Doc. 63 Ex. 1 at 16; Doc. 65 Ex. 11 at 4):

I am writing to advise you of all the materials I need for daily prayer and communion with God in my religion as God told me directly. I need incense Frankin[c]ense/My[rrh] and sandalwood, charcoal bricks/disk, matches or a lighter, assorted color [tapered] candles, mystical oil #1 ancient wisdo[m] or High Johns and #2 anointing, small plastic bottle to keep daily applications, . . . 25 crystal/stone runes and 1 box to house these in, all except runes to be kept in locker. I will also need a medallion that reflects my religious beliefs. Now that you know that I need these items and what they are, your position as chaplain should be to promptly obtain them so as for prayer and communion with God.
a. Defendant Parsons denied the request without explanation. (Doc. 63 Ex. 1 at 16; Doc. 65 Ex. 11 at 4)

         13. On October 26, 2011, Plaintiff filed an informal grievance that stated the following (Doc. 63 Ex. 1 at 18-19; Doc. 65 Ex. 11 at 5-6):

I am grieving the fact that Chapl[a]in Parsons is [refusing] to make accommodations to allow me to pray and commune with God and be able to receive the items needed; to which are mystic oil, incense Frankin[c]ense/myr[r]h & sandalwood, charcoal disk, assorted [tapered] candles, box to house these items, a small plastic bottle to hold daily amount of mystical oil, hard stick matches or a lighter, and a religious medallion that reflects my faith, Mysticism. Chapl[a]in Parsons stated from our first conversation that he would deny me anything I requested. It is evident that Chapl[a]in Parsons is not in compliance with Chpt. 33-503.001(c), 2(a), 2(b), 2(c), 2(c)(3)[, ] thus he is maliciously denying myself prayer until someone in Tallahassee demands that he does conform to the Constitution; to religious freedom and chpt. 33-503.001c, 2a, 2b, 2c, 2c3. Which Chapl[a]in Parson[s'] job should mandate as chapl[a]in that he does conform to the Constitution 1st Amendment, “Freedom of Religion” and Chapter 33-503.001(c), 2(a), 2(b), 2(c), 2(c)(3).
Relief sought: That Chapl[a]in Parsons makes availability of the chapel for me to pray 8 times a day and be able to order everything and take the daily needed amount to do my prayers within my cell, as I was doing before the lighters became contraband. And that Chapl[a]in Parsons be instructed on the religious rights of those who practice a recognized Religion and the description of his job title in Chapter 33-503.001 and how he shall help inmates to further their spirituality.

a. The informal grievance was denied with the following explanation (Doc. 63 Ex. 1 at 18; Doc. 65 Ex. 11 at 5):

Your grievance has been received, reviewed, evaluated and the following has been determined.
33-503.001 sections (1)(a)1, 2 and three states the following:
The Chaplaincy Service Section of the Office of Education and Initiatives Is responsible for:
1. Developing and evaluating religious programs throughout the Department 2. Coordinating all religious programs throughout the Department 3. Providing general assistance and guidance to chaplain.
In previous conversations with the chaplain you were informed that although the Department recognizes Mysticism there are no guidelines for this religion within the Technical Guide. The authority to develop such guidelines clearly is with The Chaplaincy Service, not the local Chaplain.
Based upon the Florida Admin[.] code as quoted above[, ] your grievance is denied.

         14. Plaintiff filed a second informal grievance on the same day, October 26, 2011 (Doc. 63 Ex. 1 at 20; Doc. 65 Ex. 3 at 3):

I am grieving the fact that Chapl[a]in Parsons and myself talked over 10 days ago about my faith “Mysticism.” At that time and until now, Chapl[a]in Parsons has not attempted to find out what times I must pray and commune with God, nor has he called me in to be able to pray and commune w/ God. He is not making an attempt to help me further my spirituality, as per his job requirement per Chpt. 33-[503].001c, 2(a), 2(b), 2(c), 2(c)(3).
Relief sought: To be allowed to pray and commune with God, with Chapl[a]in Parsons trying to further my spiritual needs, or a chapl[a]in who abides by Chpt. 33-[503].001[, ] Replace and[/]or instruct Chapl[a]in Parsons on his duties.
a. The informal grievance was denied using the exact same explanation as the denial of his other October 26, 2011 grievance. (Doc. 63 Ex. 1 at 20; Doc. 65 Ex. 3 at 3); see supra ¶ 13(a).

         15. On November 9, 2011, Plaintiff appealed the denials of his October 26, 2011 informal grievances. (Doc. 63 Ex. 1 at 21-22; Doc. 65 Ex. 11 at 9-10).

a. HCI's warden denied the grievance, explaining that the response to his informal grievance was appropriate and that Defendant Taylor would advise Plaintiff concerning his issues. (Doc. 63 Ex. 1 at 23; Doc. 65 Ex. 11 at 8)
b. On December 6, 2011, Plaintiff appealed to the Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections. (Doc. 65 Ex. 11 at 14)
i. The Secretary denied the appeal in March 2012, explaining (Doc. 63 Ex. 1 at 25; Doc. 65 Ex. 11 at 13):
Your administrative appeal has been received, evaluated and referred to Chaplaincy Services who provided the following information:
According to your request and the chaplain's replies you were appropriately told that you could not be called to the chapel 8 times a day for prayer nor have a match for each prayer. The Chapel schedule is based on time, space and supervision availability; no group or individual is permitted to use the chapel 8 times every day. If you desire a medallion you should notify that chaplain as to the medallion you request then the chaplain can determine if the medallion is permitted. You must have the religious headquarters of your faith group write to the chaplain, using their own letterhead paper, the requirements and religious paraphernalia necessary for their faith. The institution responded appropriately.

         16. On September 8, 2013, Plaintiff submitted a request to food service to be given only fruit juice and no food during an upcoming forty-day religious fast. (Doc. 65 Ex. 16 at 2)

a. The response to his request indicated that Defendant Parsons would need to make the request on Plaintiff's behalf. (Doc. 65 Ex. 16 at 2)
b. Plaintiff, accordingly, submitted a request to Defendant Parsons, who denied the request, explaining that Plaintiff could eat or drink what was offered by food service, or choose not to do so. Permission from a chaplain was not required. (Doc. 65 Ex. 16 at 3)
c. Plaintiff, ultimately, received assistance from Assistant Warden Morris and Food Service. (Doc. 65 Ex. 16 at 4)

         17. On February 28, 2014, Plaintiff submitted an inmate request to Defendant Parsons regarding the February 26, 2014, confiscation of his tarot cards. He asked that the cards be returned to him, rather than be stored in the chapel. Alternatively, he requested that the cards be stored in the chapel for his use only and that he be placed on the call-out list daily at the same time to use them in the chapel. (Doc. 65 Ex. 12 at 2)

a. Defendant Parsons denied the request, explaining that: (1) pursuant to Florida Administrative Code Section 33-602.201(13)(d), his tarot cards would remain in the chapel; and (2) he could submit an inmate request to be placed on the call-out list to use them in the chapel, and he would be placed on the call-out list as time and space permitted. (Doc. 65 Ex. 12 at 2)

         18. On May 9, 2014, Plaintiff submitted a request to Defendant Parsons for a time slot for a Mysticism study group for five registered mystic inmates at HCI. (Doc. 63 Ex. 1 at 28)

a. Defendant Parsons responded by explaining that he “need[ed] a request from everyone who wants this class ...

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