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Ashaheed v. Currington

United States District Court, D. Colorado

May 2, 2019

TAJUDDIN ASHAHEED, Plaintiff,
v.
THOMAS E. CURRINGTON, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO DISMISS

          William J. Martínez, United States District Judge.

         In this action, Plaintiff Tajuddin Ashaheed (“Plaintiff”) brings the following claims against Defendant Thomas E. Currington (“Defendant”): (1) violation of his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion, brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Claim 1”; ECF No. 13 at 7-8, ¶¶ 30-40); (2) violation of his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection, brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Claim 2”; id. at 9, ¶¶ 41-44); and (3) violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”), brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc et seq. (“Claim 3”; id. at 9-10, ¶¶ 45-48). Before the Court is Defendant's Motion to Dismiss (the “Motion”; ECF No. 44).

         For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants the Motion, dismisses without prejudice Claim 1 and Claim 2, dismisses with prejudice Claim 3, and grants Plaintiff leave to file an amended complaint no later than June 3, 2019.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The following factual summary is drawn from Plaintiff's amended complaint (the “Complaint”; ECF No. 13), except where otherwise noted. The Court assumes the allegations contained in the Complaint to be true for the purpose of deciding the Motion. Ridge at Red Hawk, LLC v. Schneider, 493 F.3d 1174, 1177 (10th Cir. 2007).

         Plaintiff has been a practicing Muslim since 1993. (ECF No. 13 at 3, ¶¶ 9, 11; see also ECF Nos. 54 at 4 & 54-4.) Pursuant to his religious beliefs, Plaintiff observes various Islamic rituals, including the “‘Sunnha' [sic] practice of leaving one's beard to grow.” (ECF No. 13 at 3, ¶ 9.) Plaintiff asserts that his beard “is integral to his religious identity” and that shaving his beard would “violate[] a core tenet of his faith.” (Id. at 3, ¶ 10.)

         In 1993, while serving a sentence at the Colorado Department of Corrections (“CDOC”), Plaintiff informed CDOC staff members of “his Muslim faith and signed a written declaration of his religious affiliation.” (Id. at 3, ¶ 11.) Plaintiff alleges that from that date forward, the CDOC's file on Plaintiff listed him as being affiliated with the Muslim faith. (Id.; see also id. at 4, 9 ¶¶ 16, 47.) Sometime prior to 2014, Plaintiff was apparently released from the CDOC's custody. (See id. at 3, ¶¶ 11-12.)

         In 2014, Plaintiff returned to the CDOC for a 4-year sentence, “at which time his file was updated and continued to document his Muslim faith.” (Id. at 3, ¶ 12.) In March 2016, Plaintiff was released on parole. (Id. at 3, ¶ 13.) Plaintiff, however, was remanded to the CDOC in July 2016 to serve 90 days for various parole violations. (Id.) On July 5, 2016, Plaintiff appeared at the CDOC's intake and classification facility, known as the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center (“DRDC”), so that he could be processed into the CDOC's system and begin serving his 90-day sentence. (Id. at 4, ¶ 14.) On that day, Plaintiff had a beard in accordance with his Muslim faith and was “observing the holy month of Ramadan, the most sacred month for Muslims.” (Id. at 4, ¶¶ 14-15.)

         As the initial step in the intake process, an officer at the DRDC interviewed Plaintiff to review and update the information in the CDOC's file on Plaintiff. (Id. at 4, ¶ 16.) As a required part of the interview, the officer asked for Plaintiff's “religious faith group affiliation.” (Id.) Plaintiff informed the officer that he was a practicing Muslim, and the officer in turn documented the religious affiliation in Plaintiff's file. (Id.) The officer, however, did not require Plaintiff to sign a form declaring his religion because the CDOC's file on Plaintiff contained his previous declaration (apparently the declaration he made in 1993). (Id.; see also id. at 3, ¶ 11.)

         Pursuant to CDOC Reg. 850-11 (in the version in effect at the time of Plaintiff's July 2016 intake), all newly admitted inmates are required to be photographed without beards during the intake process (the “Regulation”; ECF No. 54-1 at 11). (ECF No. 13 at 4-5, ¶ 18.) The Regulation, however, has several exceptions. (Id.; see also ECF No. 54-1 at 11.) The exception that is germane to this action provides that “[a]n offender who claims that a beard is a fundamental tenet of a sincerely held religious belief will not be required to shave as long as the offender obtains documentation from the Office of Faith and Citizen Program's coordinator [the ‘Exception'].” (ECF No. 54-1 at 11.)

         Despite the Exception, Plaintiff was ordered by Defendant, who is a correctional officer at the DRDC, to submit to having his beard shaved by the prison barber. (ECF No. 13 at 2, 5, ¶¶ 7, 19.) When “Plaintiff Ashaheed explained that he is a practicing Muslim and that shaving his beard would violate a core tenet of his faith, Defendant Currington stated that Plaintiff Ashaheed must have a ‘full beard' in order to ‘qualify' for the religious exemption to beard shaving.” (Id. at 5, ¶ 20.) Plaintiff “then explained [to Defendant] that he is physically unable to grow a full beard, reiterated that his beard is worn for religious practices, and stated that his religious affiliation is documented in his CDOC file.” (Id. at 5, ¶ 21.) In response, Defendant told Plaintiff that he “didn't want to hear about it, ” and that Plaintiff would be “thrown in the hole” if he did not submit to having his beard shaved. (Id. at 5, ¶¶ 21-22.)

         As a result of Defendant's threat, Plaintiff submitted to having his beard shaved by the prison barber. (Id. at 5, ¶ 23.) Plaintiff claims that he “spent the remaining holy days of Ramadan, and months thereafter, beardless, feeling dehumanized, humiliated, his faith having been disrespected.” (Id.) On October 29, 2017, Plaintiff completed the full term of his prison sentence and was discharged from CDOC custody. (ECF No. 38 at 6.)

         On December 14, 2017, Plaintiff filed this action against Defendant. (ECF No. 1.) In the Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant violated: (1) his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion; (2) his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection; and (3) RLUIPA. (ECF No. 13.) On September 28, 2018, Defendant moved to dismiss this action pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).[1](ECF No. 44.) Plaintiff subsequently filed a response to the Motion (“Response”; ECF No. 54).

         On January 11, 2019, Defendant filed an Unopposed Motion to Stay Discovery Pending Resolution of Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint. (ECF No. 56.) On January 28, 2019, Defendant's motion to stay was granted by United States Magistrate Judge S. Kato Crews. (ECF No. 58.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Under Rule 12(b)(6), a party may move to dismiss a claim in a complaint for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). “The court's function on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is not to weigh potential evidence that the parties might present at trial, but to assess whether the plaintiff's complaint alone is legally sufficient to state a claim for which relief may be granted.” Dubbs v. Head Start, Inc., 336 F.3d 1194, 1201 (10th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The Rule 12(b)(6) standard requires the Court to “assume the truth of the plaintiff's well-pleaded factual allegations and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Ridge at Red Hawk, LLC v. Schneider, 493 F.3d 1174, 1177 (10th Cir. 2007). Thus, in ruling on a Motion to Dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the dispositive inquiry is “whether the complaint contains ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Id. (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 559 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

         Granting a motion to dismiss “is a harsh remedy which must be cautiously studied, not only to effectuate the spirit of the liberal rules of pleading but also to protect the interests of justice.” Dias v. City & Cnty. of Denver, 567 F.3d 1169, 1178 (10th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). “Thus, ‘a well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is improbable, and that a recovery is very remote and unlikely.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). However, “[t]he burden is on the plaintiff to frame a complaint ‘with enough factual matter (taken as true) to suggest' that he or she is entitled to relief.” Robbins v. Oklahoma, 519 F.3d 1242, 1247 (10th Cir. 2008) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “[C]omplaints that are no more than ‘labels and conclusions' or ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action,' . . . ‘will not do.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Claim 1-Free Exercise of Religion

          1. Free ...


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