Joseph v. Fischer

Decision Date24 October 2012
Docket NumberNo. 09–CV–6428L.,09–CV–6428L.
Citation900 F.Supp.2d 320
PartiesRodney JOSEPH, Plaintiff, v. Brian FISCHER, Commissioner of New York State Department of Correctional Services, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of New York


Rodney Joseph, Fallsburg, NY, pro se.

Toni E. Logue, New York State Attorney General, Mineola, NY, for Defendants.


DAVID G. LARIMER, District Judge.

Plaintiff Rodney Joseph, an inmate in the custody of the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (“DOCCS”), commenced this action on August 24, 2009. Plaintiff has sued a number of DOCCS employees, asserting several claims based primarily on his allegation that defendants have violated plaintiff's right to practice his religion in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc et seq. Plaintiff seeks declaratory and injunctive relief as well as money damages.

Defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons that follow, that motion is granted in part and denied in part.


The forty-page amended complaint alleges that plaintiff is a practicing member of an organization or entity known as the Nation of Gods and Earths (“NGE”). The complaint provides few details of the tenetsor practices of this group, but in support of his claims, plaintiff relies in part on decisions from the Southern District of New York in another case involving NGE. One of those decisions, Marria v. Broaddus (“ Marria I ”), No. 97 Civ. 8297, 2003 WL 21782633 (S.D.N.Y. July 31, 2003), summarized the NGE belief system in some detail. See id. at *1–*4. In short, NGE, whose adherents are commonly referred to as “Five Percenters,” “traces its roots to the Black Muslim movement that emerged in the midtwentieth century and most directly to the Nation of Islam,” which is classified by DOCCS as a religion. Id. at *1.

In Marria, District Judge Naomi Buchwald, following a bench trial, held that NGE is a “religion” for purposes of RLUIPA, and that the inmate plaintiff's beliefs based on his adherence to NGE teachings were religious in nature. The court therefore directed DOCCS (which was then known as the Department of Correctional Services, or DOCS) to conform its policies concerning NGE to the court's findings and rulings in Marria. Id. In response to that decision, DOCS adopted certain protocols concerning NGE (“Protocols”), which were approved by the court in a subsequent opinion and order. See Marria v. Broaddus (“ Marria II ”), 2004 WL 1724984 (S.D.N.Y. July 30, 2004).1

In the case at bar, plaintiff alleges that during his confinement at Attica Correctional Facility, defendants have interfered with his practice of his beliefs. He alleges that defendants have confiscated from him written materials relating to NGE, that they have prevented him and other NGE members from congregating with or talking to other inmates about NGE, and that they have otherwise not granted NGE members the same rights and privileges as members of other faith groups. Plaintiff alleges that defendants have thereby violated his rights under the First Amendment and RLUIPA.

Though the religion-based claims make up the bulk of plaintiff's claims, he also asserts that defendants have interfered with his right of access to the courts. Specifically, he alleges that defendants confiscated, or prevented plaintiff from receiving, certain documents relating to a proceeding in New York State Surrogate's Court in which plaintiff was involved. Plaintiff also alleges that some of the defendants' actions were motivated by a desire to retaliate against him, because of his complaints concerning defendants' alleged violations of his rights and other matters.


I. Motions to Dismiss under Rule 12(c)

“In deciding a Rule 12(c) motion, [courts] apply the same standard as that applicable to a motion under Rule 12(b)(6). Under that test, a court must accept the allegations contained in the complaint as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-movant.” Sheppard v. Beerman, 18 F.3d 147, 150 (2d Cir.1994). However, “a plaintiff's obligation ... requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007); accord Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009).

II. Application to this CaseA. Religion Claims: General Principles

Prisoners enjoy some degree of constitutional protection under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S. 817, 822, 94 S.Ct. 2800, 41 L.Ed.2d 495 (1974); Jackson v. Mann, 196 F.3d 316, 320 (2d Cir.1999). Such rights, however, are balanced against the “interests of prison officials charged with complex duties arising from administration of the penal system.” Benjamin v. Coughlin, 905 F.2d 571, 574 (2d Cir.1990).

A prisoner's free exercise claim is therefore “judged under a ‘reasonableness' test less restrictive than that ordinarily applied to alleged infringements of fundamental constitutional rights.” Farid v. Smith, 850 F.2d 917, 925 (2d Cir.1988) (quoting O'Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 349, 107 S.Ct. 2400, 96 L.Ed.2d 282 (1987)); see also Ford v. McGinnis, 352 F.3d 582, 588 (2d Cir.2003). Thus, a prison regulation that impinges upon an inmate's practice of his religion may nonetheless be valid, if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests. Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 89, 107 S.Ct. 2254, 96 L.Ed.2d 64 (1987); Farid v. Smith, 850 F.2d at 925. The application of this lower standard is consistent with the notion that “evaluation of penological objectives is committed to the considered judgment of prison administrators, ‘who are actually charged with and trained in the running of the particular institution under examination.’ O'Lone, 482 U.S. at 349, 107 S.Ct. 2400 (quoting Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 562, 99 S.Ct. 1861, 60 L.Ed.2d 447 (1979)).

The Second Circuit has set forth a three-part inquiry by which to assess free exercise claims. A court considering such a claim should determine (1) whether the practice asserted is religious in the person's scheme of beliefs, and whether the belief is sincerely held; (2) whether the challenged practice of the prison officials infringes upon the religious belief; and (3) whether the challenged practice of the prison officials furthers some legitimate penological objective.” Farid v. Smith, 850 F.2d at 926.

Prisoners' religious rights are also safeguarded by RLUIPA, which “protects institutionalized persons who are unable freely to attend to their religious needs and are therefore dependent on the government's permission and accommodation for exercise of their religion.” Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709, 723, 125 S.Ct. 2113, 161 L.Ed.2d 1020 (2005). RLUIPA provides that

[n]o government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution ... even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person—

(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and

(2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

42 U.S.C. § 2000cc–1(a).

A prisoner can establish a RLUIPA violation by proving that the prison regulation or policy at issue imposes a “substantial burden” on his religious exercise without promoting a compelling governmental interest that is advanced through the least restrictive means. RLUIPA, then, “imposes a higher burden than does the First Amendment in that the statute requires prison regulators to put forth a stronger justification for regulations that impinge on the religious practices of prison inmates.” McFaul v. Valenzuela, 684 F.3d 564, 575 (5th Cir.2012) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Although RLUIPA does not define “substantial burden,” the Second Circuit has stated that [s]ince substantial burden is a term of art in the Supreme Court's free exercise jurisprudence we assume that Congress, by using it, planned to incorporate the cluster of ideas associated with the Court's use of it.” Westchester Day School v. Village of Mamaroneck, 504 F.3d 338, 348 (2d Cir.2007) (citations omitted). The Supreme Court has held that a substantial burden is one that “put[s] substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs.” Thomas v. Review Bd. of Ind. Emp't Sec. Div., 450 U.S. 707, 718, 101 S.Ct. 1425, 67 L.Ed.2d 624 (1981) ( quoted in Westchester Day School, 504 F.3d at 348).

III. Plaintiff's Religion ClaimsA. Equitable Relief

Applying those standards to the case before me, I conclude that plaintiff's claims relating to his membership in NGE are sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss, at least insofar as plaintiff seeks equitable relief.

As the court in Marria noted, RGE adherents are entitled to protection under both the First Amendment and RLUIPA. The court in that case stated that although NGE and its members were themselves reluctant to call NGE a “religion,” “the law of the Free Exercise Clause does not turn on mere semantic distinctions.” Marria I, 2003 WL 21782633, at *11. After reviewing some of the tenets of NGE, both in general and as expressed by the individual plaintiff in Marria, the court concluded that the plaintiff's beliefs as a member of NGE were “both sincere and ‘religious in nature’ and therefore entitled to RLUIPA and First Amendment protection under the free exercise clause.” Id. at *12.See also Wright v. Fayram, No. C 11–0001, 2012 WL 2312076, at *11–*12 (N.D.Iowa June 18, 2012) (finding that...

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