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Mounts v. Raemisch

United States District Court, D. Colorado

September 19, 2019

MATTHEW MOUNTS, Plaintiff,
v.
RICK RAEMISCH, Executive Director CDOC, ANGEL MEDINA, Warden Canon Minimum Centers, and RANDY OLGUIN, Lt., Volunteer Services, Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART DEFENDANTS’ MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          R. BROOKE JACKSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on (1) defendants’ motion for summary judgment, ECF No. 60; (2) the recommendation of United State Magistrate Judge Kristin L. Mix that the motion be granted in part and denied in part, ECF No. 86; (3) defendant’s objection to that recommendation, ECF No. 87; and (4) plaintiff’s objection to that recommendation, ECF No. 90. The recommendation is incorporated herein by reference. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b). I adopt Magistrate Judge Mix’s recommendation in full. The motion for summary judgment is therefore granted in part and denied in part.

         FACTS

         Plaintiff Matthew K. Mounts is an inmate incarcerated by the Colorado Department of Corrections (“CDOC”) at Arrowhead Correctional Center (“Arrowhead”). He filed an amended complaint on January 12, 2017 based on the denial of several requests related to his Jewish faith. Mr. Mounts asserts four claims in his amended complaint: (1) that Arrowhead denied him the ability to light candles at the correct times on Friday and Saturday nights; (2) that Arrowhead denied him the ability to light burning wax candles as opposed to battery-operated tea lights; (3) that Arrowhead denied him several religious items, including a fedora, a gartel, challah bread, dreidels, and access to tefillin in his cell; and (4) that Arrowhead denied him access to religious services for two months. ECF No. 12 at 4–7. He seeks injunctive relief, $10,000 in compensatory damages, and $10,000,000 in punitive damages. ECF No. 12 at 9.

         Mr. Mounts did not specify which legal claims he asserts regarding each of these factual claims, but his pleadings reference the First Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”). Magistrate Judge Mix liberally construed his pleadings due to his pro se status. I agree with Magistrate Judge Mix’s interpretation that Mr. Mounts asserts claims under both the First Amendment and RLUIPA for all four of his factual claims, plus a Fourteenth Amendment claim for denial of religious services.

         Defendants filed the pending motion for summary judgment to dismiss all of Mr. Mounts’ claims. ECF No. 60. Defendants argue that (1) the Eleventh Amendment precludes damages against defendants in their official capacities; (2) qualified immunity precludes damages against defendants in their individual capacities; (3) RLUIPA does not provide for damages; (4) the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), precludes compensatory damages because Mr. Mounts did not suffer physical injury; (5) Mr. Mounts does not make a case for punitive damages; (6) several of Mr. Mounts’ claims for injunctive relief are moot because Arrowhead agreed to accommodate them; (7) Mr. Mounts did not exhaust his administrative remedies regarding his claim for denial of challah; (8) defendants’ conduct does not amount to a substantial burden on Mr. Mounts’ religion; and (9) to the extent that their conduct does amount to a substantial burden, defendants have legitimate penological security interests for the infringement. ECF No. 60 at 2.

         Magistrate Judge Mix reviewed the motion and recommended that it be granted in part and denied in part. ECF No. 86. She recommended granting summary judgment on all except for these three claims: (1) Mr. Mounts’ Fourteenth Amendment due process claim for damages against Defendant Olguin in his individual capacity for denial of religious services; (2) Mr. Mounts’ RLUIPA claim for injunctive relief against defendants in their official capacities regarding wax candles; and (3) Mr. Mounts’ First Amendment claim for injunctive relief against defendants in their official capacities regarding wax candles. In response defendants filed a motion requesting that this Court extend the long-tolled dispositive motions deadline so that they could submit an additional summary judgment motion. ECF No. 87. They claimed that “[t]he inherent ambiguities in Mr. Mounts’ pro se Amended Prisoner Complaint led Defendants to construe some of Mr. Mounts’ claims differently than the Magistrate Judge.” ECF No. 87 at 3. This Court denied defendants’ motion, treating it instead as a timely objection to Magistrate Judge Mix’s recommendation. ECF No. 88. As interpreted, defendants make three timely objections. They object to Magistrate Judge Mix’s conclusions regarding (1) the Fourteenth Amendment due process claim for denial of religious services; (2) the RLUIPA claim for the wax candles; and (3) the First Amendment claim for the wax candles. ECF No. 87 at 4–7.

         Mr. Mounts also makes five timely objections. ECF No. 90. He objects to Magistrate Judge Mix’s conclusions regarding the claims for (1) denial of religious services; (2) denial of a fedora; (3) denial of a gartel; (4) denial of correct candle-lighting service times; and (5) denial of challah bread.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A. Magistrate Judge recommendation

         When a magistrate judge makes a recommendation on a dispositive motion, the district court “must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge’s disposition that has been properly objected to.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3). An objection is sufficiently specific if it “focus[es] the district court’s attention on the factual and legal issues that are truly in dispute.” United States v. 2121 E. 30th St., 73 F.3d 1057, 1060 (10th Cir. 1996). In the absence of a timely and specific objection, “the district court may review a magistrate’s report under any standard it deems appropriate.” Summers v. Utah, 927 F.2d 1165, 1167 (10th Cir. 1991); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72 advisory committee’s note (“When no timely objection is filed, the court need only satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the recommendation.”). Legal theories raised for the first time in objections to a magistrate judge’s recommendation are deemed waived. United States v. Garfinkle, 261 F.3d 1030, 1031 (10th Cir. 2011).

         B. Motion for Summary Judgment

         A court may grant summary judgment if “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). The moving party has the burden to show that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). The nonmoving party must “designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324. A fact is material “if under the substantive law it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim.” Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir. 1998) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A material fact is genuine if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. The court will examine the factual record and make reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. See Concrete Works of Colo., Inc. v. City and Cty. of Denver, 36 F.3d 1513, 1517 (10th Cir. 1994).

         C. Pro se Litigants

         When a case involves pro se litigants, courts will review their “pleadings and other papers liberally and hold them to a less stringent standard than those drafted by attorneys.” Trackwell v. U.S. Gov’t, 472 F.3d 1242, 1243 (10th Cir. 2007). Nevertheless, it is not “the proper function of the district court to assume the role of advocate for the pro se litigant.” Hall v. Bellmon, 935 F.2d 1106, 1110 (10th Cir. 1991). A “broad reading” of a pro se plaintiff’s pleadings “does not relieve the plaintiff of the burden of alleging sufficient facts on which a recognized legal claim could be based.” Id. Pro se parties must “follow the same rules of procedure that govern other litigants.” Nielsen v. Price, 17 F.3d 1276, 1277 (10th Cir. 1994) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         ANALYSIS

         I address each of Mr. Mounts’ five objections and defendants’ three objections under a de novo standard of review.

         I review the remaining claims objected to by neither party under a clear error standard. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 72 advisory committee’s note. Based on that review, I conclude that Magistrate Judge Mix’s analyses and recommendations regarding those claims are correct and that “there is no clear error on the face of the record.” Id.

         A. Plaintiff’s Objections

         1. Denial of Religious Services in Violation of the First Amendment

         First, Mr. Mounts disagrees with Magistrate Judge Mix’s recommendations regarding denial of religious services. Because Mr. Mounts’ objection is ambiguous, in the interest of fairness and finality I will address both the official capacity claim and the individual capacity claim de novo.

         a. Official Capacity

         I agree with Magistrate Judge Mix’s finding that the Eleventh Amendment bars Mr. Mounts’ claim against defendants in their official capacities for denial of religious services. It is well established that “neither a State nor its officials acting in their official capacities are ‘persons’ under § 1983,Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989), and that “the Eleventh Amendment precludes a federal court from assessing damages against state officials sued in their official capacities because such suits are in essence suits against the state,” Hunt v. Bennett, 17 F.3d 1263, 1267 (10th Cir. 1994). Here, to the extent that Mr. Mounts is suing defendants in their role as public officials-i.e. in their official capacities-his claim is barred.

         Accordingly, I adopt the recommendation of Magistrate Judge Mix and grant the motion for summary judgment related to Mr. Mounts’ First Amendment claim for damages against defendants in their official capacities for denial of religious services. The claim is dismissed without prejudice. See Wauford v. Richardson, 450 Fed.Appx. 698, 699 (stating that claims barred by the Eleventh Amendment should be dismissed without prejudice).

         b. Individual Capacity

         I also agree with Magistrate Judge Mix’s finding that defendants are entitled to qualified immunity with respect to Mr. Mounts’ claim against them in their individual capacities for denial of religious services. A plaintiff must satisfy a two-part test to overcome a defendant’s claim of qualified immunity. See Nelson v. McMullen, 207 F.3d 1202, 1206 (10th Cir. 2000). The plaintiff must establish both that (1) the defendants’ actions violated a constitutional right and (2) the right at issue was clearly established at the time of the alleged unlawful conduct. See id. Courts may exercise their discretion in deciding which of these two prongs to address first. See Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009).

         Here, “it is plain that [the alleged] constitutional right is not clearly established.” See Pearson, 555 U.S. at 236. The alleged conduct at issue here is nuanced. Defendants assert that they banned Mr. Mounts from the programs area for two instances of alleged theft therefrom. ECF No. 60 at 5–6. The programs area is also the area used for Jewish services, and defendants could not find an alternative place to conduct services. Id. As such, the ban from the programs area incidentally resulted in a ban from religious services. Id. The ban was temporary (sixty days), and Mr. Mounts was allowed to conduct services alone in his cell. Id. at 6. Consistent with Magistrate Judge Mix’s recommendation, I found no Supreme Court, Tenth Circuit, or any other circuit court cases that indicate that defendants’ conduct violates a clearly established First Amendment right.

         Accordingly, I adopt the recommendation of Magistrate Judge Mix and grant the motion for summary judgment related to Mr. Mounts’ First Amendment claim against defendants in their individual capacities for damages for denial of religious services. The claim is dismissed with prejudice. See Clark v. Wilson, 625 F.3d 686, 692 (instructing the district court to grant defendants’ motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity “with prejudice”).

         2. Denial of a Fedora in Violation of RLUIPA and ...


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