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Jefferson v. Ansari

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

November 4, 2019

IMAM FARID ANSARI, Islamic Chaplain at Rhode Island's Department of Corrections [RIDOC; BARRY WEINER, Assistant Director of Rehabilitative Services at RIDOC; JEFFREY ACETO, then-Deputy Warden now-Warden of RIDOC's Maximum Security Unit; MATTHEW KETTLE, then-Warden of Maximum Security now-Assistant Director of Operations at RIDOC; ASHBEL T. WALL, then-Director of RIDOC; and PATRICIA COYNE FAGUE, Acting-Director of RIDOC, Defendants.



         This § 1983 case, brought pro se[1] by a prisoner serving a life-without-parole sentence at the Adult Correctional Institutions (“ACI”), has had a long history before the Court. It began as a sprawling sixty-five-page, 452-paragraph, nine-Count “Verified Complaint with Jury Demand, ” most of which was dismissed in August 2018, ECF No. 27, leaving only Plaintiff's First Amendment Free Exercise claim that he has been denied his right freely to practice the Islamic religion. Jefferson v. Raimondo, C.A. No. 17-439 WES, 2018 WL 3873233, at *3, *18 (D.R.I. Aug. 15, 2018) (“Jefferson v. Raimondo”). As directed by the Court, Plaintiff filed a First Amended Complaint focused on his desire to attend weekly Jumu'ah services and to engage in certain rituals of Ramadaan and Eid in a congregate setting. ECF No. 32 (“FAC”).

         The FAC seeks monetary damages for the deprivation of access to these religious practices, as well as injunctive relief. It names various senior officials of Rhode Island Department of Corrections (“RIDOC”). With respect to the claim for money damages, Defendants Imam Farid Ansari[2] (the ACI Islamic chaplain), Barry Weiner (Assistant Director of Rehabilitative Services) and Warden Jeffrey Aceto are sued in their individual capacities. With respect to the claim for injunctive relief, the FAC names the former Warden and current Assistant Director Matthew Kettle, and the former and current RIDOC Directors, A.T. Wall and Patricia Coyne-Fague, who are sued in their official capacities. The FAC's request for an injunction asks the Court to order the implementation of a protocol to allow Muslim prisoners to attend inmate-led weekly Jumu'ah services and to practice specific rituals associated with Ramadaan and Eid. Plaintiff supported the FAC's request for an injunction with a motion for preliminary injunction filed on January 7, 2019. ECF No. 41.

         Defendants filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a) and 12(b)(6). ECF No. 37. The motion was referred to me for report and recommendation. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B).

         I. BACKGROUND[3]

         Invoking the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, [4] U.S. Const. amend. I, the FAC alleges that RIDOC unreasonably burdened the sincerely held religious beliefs of Plaintiff, a Muslim prisoner, during a period of several months after the ACI unexpectedly lost its Imam and was trying to bring a new Imam on board, which finally happened in May 2017. FAC ¶¶ 17-26. Then, after Imam Ansari became the ACI's Muslim chaplain, the FAC alleges that he failed to conduct services every week[5] in Plaintiff's area of the ACI because he was leading services in other areas, that RIDOC officials continued refusing to permit inmate-led services to be conducted when the Imam was unavailable, and that RIDOC officials prohibited congregate performance of “Salatul Maghrib” (the ritual sunset prayer with prostrations) during 2018 Ramadaan (although Muslim prisoners were allowed to pray at the dining table and to have special fast-breaking meals in their cells). Id. ¶¶ 27-82.

         While the focus of this report and recommendation is on the FAC, the Court cannot ignore that, over the period since the religious matters raised in the FAC have been in issue, based on guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court, e.g., Holt v. Hobbs, 574 U.S. 352, 859 (2015), this Court has issued a number of decisions addressing religious practice at the ACI. See, e.g., Jefferson v. Wall, 2017 WL 6459447, at *1; Harris v. Wall, 217 F.Supp.3d 541, 562 (D.R.I. 2016); Vangel v. Aul, C.A. No. 15-43L, 2015 WL 5714850, at *6 (D.R.I. June 19, 2015), adopted, C.A. No. 15-43L, 2015 WL 5714855 (D.R.I. Sept. 29, 2015). As the law has evolved, RIDOC has been appropriately responsive to these decisions, calibrating its rules and protocols in recognition that, while “the fact of incarceration and the valid penological objectives of deterrence of crime, rehabilitation of prisoners, and institutional security justify limitations on the exercise of constitutional rights by inmates, ” DeHart v. Horn, 227 F.3d 47, 50-51 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S. 817, 822-23 (1974)), “reasonable opportunities must be afforded to all prisoners to exercise the religious freedom guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendment.” Cruz v. Beto, 405 U.S. 319, 322 n.2 (1972). For example, in another case brought by Plaintiff, Jefferson v. Wall, the Court noted RIDOC's adoption in late 2017 of a new operating procedure permitting the wearing of the kufi by Muslim prisoners; based on this policy change, Plaintiff's motion seeking a preliminary injunction in Jefferson v. Wall was denied. 2017 WL 6459447, at * 1-2.

         Plaintiff filed the FAC in September 2018, a little over three months after Imam Ansari began as the new ACI Muslim chaplain. FAC ¶ 3. Immediately after he started, and despite Plaintiff's complaints, the Imam told Plaintiff that he could not lead Jumu'ah services weekly because of his duties in other parts of the ACI. Id. ¶ 28. After Plaintiff submitted the FAC, in January 2019, he filed a motion for preliminary injunction, which asked for an interim order addressing the rituals raised in the FAC, including weekly Jumu'ah services and 2019 Ramadaan and Eid congregate rituals. ECF No. 41. However, less than two months later (during which period, no action was taken by the Court), on February 21, 2019, Plaintiff advised the Court of his desire to withdraw the motion for preliminary injunction. ECF No. 48. His representation to the Court is material:

Imam Farid Ansari has recruited community religious volunteers to conduct weekly Jumu'ah Prayer Services, and it appears that the Imam is working to create a 2019-Ramadaan program which includes the observance of all ritual acts of worship which Plaintiff sought via his motion for a preliminary injunction.

Id. at 1. In this filing, Plaintiff also represented that he would resubmit the motion “in the event that RIDOC prohibits Plaintiff from performing all of the traditional ritual acts worship, during the 2019 observance of Ramadaan, that have been observed by prisoners for decades in other prison systems.” Id. Almost eight months have passed, yet no motion has been resubmitted. In reliance on Plaintiff's representations, on August 28, 2019, the Court denied the preliminary injunction motion as moot.


         Defendants' motion to dismiss the FAC focuses on its factual sufficiency. Citing the Supreme Court's canonical holding in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 677-79 (2009), they argue that the FAC lacks factual allegations (as opposed to legal conclusions) sufficient to state a plausible claim of a First Amendment deprivation because it fails to specify a religious practice Plaintiff was deprived of “unnecessarily and for no legitimate penological reason, ” FAC ¶ 48; to the contrary, the FAC confirms that Plaintiff was broadly afforded the opportunity to exercise his faith, as the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment requires. Hudson v. Spencer, No. 15-2323, 2018 WL 2046094, at *3 (1st Cir. Jan. 23, 2018). Defendants point out that the FAC recites RIDOC's many accommodations to Islamic religious practice, including: Defendant Weiner's active and ultimately successful search for a new Imam, FAC ¶¶ 20, 25, 29-30; Defendant Imam Ansari's willingness to listen to Plaintiff's religious concerns, id. ¶¶ 26-28; the Imam's challenge, with scarce resources, of balancing the need for services at Maximum Security with the needs of inmates in other areas of the ACI, id. ¶¶ 28, 31; RIDOC's reliance on the Imam's religious interpretation of Ramadaan rituals in determining its approach in 2018, id. ¶ 63; and Defendant Aceto's communications reminding Plaintiff of his right during Ramadaan to pray at the dining table and take a special meal in his cell, id. ¶¶ 23, 50.

         Otherwise, as Defendants point out, the FAC is conclusory, replete with statements such as: “Defendants . . . unnecessarily deprived Plaintiff of the opportunity to attend weekly Jumu'ah Prayer Services . . . by acting in manners which substantially burdened (to the extent of extinguishing) Plaintiff's Free Exercise right, ” id. ¶ 90; “Defendants . . . unnecessarily deprived Plaintiff of the opportunity to perform the Iftar . . . ritual of Ramadaan in 2018 . . . in violation of Plaintiff's free exercise rights, ” id. ¶ 101; and “Defendants . . . acted intentionally and with callous disregard for Plaintiff's clearly established constitutional rights, ” id. ¶¶ 91, 102.

         Based on these arguments, Defendants ask the Court to dismiss the FAC pursuant to ...

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