E-Alert Case Updates
Delaware Federal Court Examines Pleading Requirements for Civil Rights Claims Against Prison Officials
Ernest Parson, et al. v. Perry Phelps, et al.
Ernest Parson, et al. v. Perry Phelps, et al. involved a civil rights lawsuit filed by a group of Muslim inmates against prison staff, alleging that the staff refused to provide the inmates with the same religious privileges as other inmates, and that the staff deprived them access to certain diets and other items related to their religious beliefs. The prison staff subsequently filed a motion to dismiss, or in the alternative, a motion for a more definite statement, arguing that the inmates had not sufficiently pled a violation of any statutory or constitutional rights. The United States District Court for the District of Delaware concluded that the inmates had failed to plead a statutory or constitutional violation with the required specificity, however, the Court denied the prison staff’s motion to dismiss but granted their motion for a more definite statement on the grounds that dismissal of pro se complaints for pleading deficiencies was not favored by the Third Circuit.
By way of factual background, Plaintiffs, a group of Muslim inmates at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center (“VCC”), filed a lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), against numerous VCC employees, including senior management, middle management, the food service provider, and the chaplain (collectively, “Defendants”). Plaintiffs generally alleged in their complaint that the Defendants violated the First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, and RLUIPA by refusing to provide halal diets, not providing Muslim inmates with the same religious privileges as Protestant inmates, restricting congregational prayer, and denying Plaintiffs access to items related to their religious beliefs.
Defendants subsequently filed a motion to dismiss, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), or in the alternative, a motion for a more definite statement. In their motion, Defendants argued that Plaintiffs had not sufficiently pled a violation of statutory or constitutional rights. The Court then proceeded to discuss in turn Plaintiffs’ claims regarding entitlement to: (1) comparable religious holidays and services; (2) a halal diet; and (3) religious necessities such as extra baths, additional bathing items, special clothing, razors, and CDs.
As to the differences in religious holidays and services, the Court noted that Plaintiffs must allege that they were similarly situated to Protestant inmates, but treated differently by Defendants. See Small v. Pennsylvania Dep't of Corr., 592 F.App'x 62, 64 (3d Cir. 2014). In Small, the Third Circuit specifically noted that “the two Jewish fasting days Small identified are not comparable to Ramadan” based on the number of fasting days, logistical challenges, and communal feasts. Id. The Small Court held “inmates seeking to participate in Ramadan are not similarly situated to inmates seeking to participate in the Jewish fasting days, and the prison did not violate the Equal Protection Clause by treating such inmates differently.” Id. In the instant action, the Court noted that Plaintiffs alleged the “denial of individual and group prayer,” “denial of the call to prayer,” “denial of religious services,” and “denial of the religious feast.” According to the Court, these allegations were not sufficient for the Court to discern how Plaintiffs were being treated differently. The Court noted, however, that “dismissal of pro se complaints for pleading deficiencies is not favored by the Third Circuit,” and thus, the Court denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss this claim without prejudice to renew, and granted their motion for a more definite statement. See Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 108 (3d Cir. 2002). The Court noted that Plaintiffs “shall be required to describe with specificity the Defendants and their conduct in relation to this claim.”
As to whether Plaintiffs had sufficiently pled a statutory or constitutional right to a halal diet, the Court noted that “the Third Circuit requires plaintiffs claiming a violation of their First Amendment rights to religious freedom to demonstrate that defendants’ conduct has placed a substantial burden on plaintiffs’ ability to practice their religious beliefs.” The Court explained that the Third Circuit holds a substantial burden is established when: (1) “the follower must decide between following his religious beliefs and foregoing benefits given to other inmates versus abandoning his beliefs to retain those benefits;” or (2) “there is substantial pressure placed on the follower to substantially modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs.” See Ford v. Bureau of Prisons, 570 F.App'x 246, 250 (3d Cir. 2014). The Court noted that, according to the Third Circuit, “the lack of meal variety, when the available meal meets the religious requirements, does not create a substantial burden as it does not cause a prisoner to violate his beliefs.” See Kretchmar v. Beard, 241 F.App'x 863, 865 (3d Cir. 2007); Williams v. Morton, 343 F.3d 212, 217 (3d Cir. 2003) (holding a prison may offer vegetarian meals in lieu of halal meat diets in the interests of simplified food service, security, and cost); Washington v. Klem, 497 F.3d 272, 283 (3d Cir. 2007).
According to the Court, the facts as alleged indicated that, while the available vegetarian diet complied with Plaintiffs’ religious requirements, “Muslims are not vegetarians” and, therefore, “to compel the Plaintiffs to accept a diet that alters the tenets of their faith creates a substantial burden.” The Court noted that a kosher diet was apparently more compatible with the requested halal diet than a vegetarian diet, but the kosher diet had been denied to Muslim prisoners. Given the holding of the Third Circuit in Williams v. Morton, 343 F.3d at 217, the Court declined to dismiss this claim without input from Defendants “to determine the competing interests of Plaintiffs’ religious beliefs and the ‘simplified food service, security and costs’ associated with providing kosher meals in lieu of either vegetarian or halal meat diets.” Thus, consistent with the above, the Court concluded that Plaintiffs shall be required to describe with specificity the Defendants and their conduct in relation to this claim.
With respect to the remainder of Plaintiffs’ claims for extra amenities, the Court found that Plaintiffs had failed to allege how the lack of such amenities placed a substantial burden on their ability to practice their Muslim faith, especially in light of the prison setting. Thus, the Court concluded that Plaintiffs shall also be required to describe with specificity the Defendants and their conduct in relation to these claims. For the above reasons, the Court denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss without prejudice to renew, and granted Defendants’ motion for a more definite statement.
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