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Rashid v. Lanigan

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

July 31, 2018

CHARLES RASHID et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
GARY M. LANIGAN et al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          FREDA L. WOLFSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiffs, Charles Rashid (“Rashid”), Ibn Pasha (“Pasha”), and William McCray (“McCray”) (collectively, “Plaintiffs”), are state prisoners who were incarcerated at New Jersey State Prison, in Trenton, New Jersey.[1] They are proceeding pro se with a civil rights complaint filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (“NJCRA”). (Am. Pet., ECF No. 7.) Presently before the Court is a motion by defendants, Gary M. Lanigan (“Lanigan”), Stephen D'Ilio (“D'Ilio”), Andrew P. Sidamon-Eristoff (“Sidamon-Eristoff”), and Jignasa Desai-McCleary (“Desai-McCleary”) (collectively, “Defendants”), for dismissal of the Amended Complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (ECF No. 13.) For the following reasons, the motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         II. BACKGROUND

This action originated as Abdul-Aziz v. Lanigan, Civ. A. No. 14-2026 (FLW) (TJB), (“the Prior Action”) in which Plaintiffs, as well as another prisoner, Sharob Abdul-Aziz (“Abdul-Aziz”), asserted § 1983 and RLUIPA claims against Lanigan, as the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections (“NJDOC”), D'Ilio, as the administrator of New Jersey State Prison (“NJSP”), and Sidamon-Eristoff and Desai-McCleary, as officials with the New Jersey Department of the Treasury (“Treasury”). The plaintiffs in the Prior Action alleged interference with their religious exercise as practicing Muslims based on four distinct grounds: (1) denial of daily Halal meats and meals; (2) denial of donated Halal feast meals; (3) prohibition and confiscation of personal prayer oils; and (4) failure to facilitate congregational prayer. See Civ. A. No. 14-2026, Compl., ECF No. 1. They alleged that, while Jewish inmates received kosher meals, Muslim inmates did not receive Halal meals and were forced to adopt a vegetarian diet. Id. ¶¶ 14-16. While they had previously been given donated Halal meals for two annual Islamic feasts, they alleged that this practice was ceased at the direction of Treasury officials. Id. ¶¶ 17- 20. The plaintiffs in the Prior Action also alleged that prison officials had begun confiscating, and then had prohibited, personal prayer oils, a component of daily prayers, despite other oils being sold in the prison commissary. Id. ¶¶ 21-26. Finally, the plaintiffs alleged that their right to participate in daily congregational prayer had in some way been impaired.[2] Id. ¶¶ 27-32.

         In March 2016, this Court granted in part and denied in part a motion to dismiss the Prior Action. Civ. A. No. 14-2026, ECF No. 27. Specifically, the Court found that Rashid, Pasha, and McCray's claims were not facially untimely under the applicable statutes of limitations.[3] Id. at 8-13. As the defendants in the Prior Action were named only in their official capacities, the Court dismissed with prejudice all claims for damages against them as barred by Eleventh Amendment immunity. Id. at 18-20. The Court noted that the plaintiffs could seek to amend their complaint to seek relief from the defendants in their individual capacities, but also indicated that RLUIPA claims may not be asserted against government employees in their individual capacities. Id. at 20. The Court thus granted the plaintiffs leave, “[t]o the extent it is not inconsistent with this Opinion, [to] file an Amended Complaint that names Defendants in their individual capacities under 1983 and NJCRA.” Id. The Court further denied an argument to dismiss the remaining RLUIPA claims for failure to state a claim. Id. at 20-21.

         Following the Court's decision on the dismissal motion in the Prior Action, Abdul-Aziz filed his Amended Complaint, Civ. A. No. 14-2026, ECF No. 31, while Rashid, Pasha, and McCray moved to file a separate Amended Complaint, Civ. A. No. 14-2026, ECF No. 43. Finding that the plaintiffs could not proceed with separate pleadings, the Court directed the plaintiffs to notify the Court whether they wished to remain as plaintiffs in the same action. Civ. A. No. 14-2026, ECF No. 45. After receiving the plaintiffs' responses, the Court found good cause to sever the matter into two actions, creating the instant proceeding, as well as a separate proceeding in Abdul-Aziz v. Lanigan, Civ. A. No. 17-2806 (FLW) (TJB).

         Accordingly, Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint from the Prior Action became the active, original complaint in this proceeding on April 25, 2017. (Compl., ECF No. 1.) On September 21, 2017, Magistrate Judge Tonianne J. Bongiovanni granted a motion by Plaintiffs for leave to supplement their Complaint. (See Letter Order, ECF No. 6.) Plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint on October 13, 2017, which is the operative pleading in this action. (ECF No. 7.)

         The Amended Complaint alleges claims that are largely the same as those asserted since the start of this litigation.[4] (See id.) First, Plaintiffs allege that they and other prisoners “are denied any type of Halal Meals that include meat as part of NJDOC's Therapeutic Central Menu, ” despite NJDOC providing Jewish inmates three Kosher meals daily. (Id. ¶¶ 11-12.) Regarding the issue of feast meals, Plaintiffs allege,

The NJDOC have vested authority with the Department of Treasury Division of Purchase and Property to allow or deny Plaintiffs their religious rights concerning donated Halal Meats and Meals, which until December of 2007, Plaintiffs were allowed donated in accordance with their religious traditions for their two (2) annual Islamic Feast.
Defendants denied Plaintiffs this right under N.J.S.A. 52:20-13. It should be noted NJSP previously prevailed on deminimis cost issue in Williams v. Morton, which plaintiffs believe is moot because all of Halal food is/was donated by by [sic] an approved vendor, thus no security issue is involved.

(Id. ¶¶ 13-14.) Plaintiffs contend that these practices violate their First Amendment rights and provisions of RLUIPA by imposing a substantial burden on religious practice “by forcing plaintiffs, who are Muslims, to prescribe [sic] to vegetarianism which is not in accordance with plaintiffs['] Islamic beliefs.” (Id. ¶¶ 25-26.) Plaintiffs also argue that denying them Halal meals, while providing Jewish inmates Kosher meals, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and that the policy of denying feast meals was arbitrary and capricious. (Id. ¶¶ 27-28.)

         Plaintiffs allege that NJDOC, on July 15, 2013, prohibited prayer oil for all Muslim inmates, claiming that it “would provide the oils to the Muslim population during classes and prayer service.” (Id. ¶ 15.) They contend that, on October 7, 2016, “the department enacted policy wherein Muslim inmates that could afford it, would purchase a Frankincense Oil (a catholic religious oil) from NJDOC.” (Id.) Plaintiffs allege that this prohibition, as well as the barring of purchasing prayer oil “from Source of Sale, ” imposed a substantial burden on their religious practice and violate RLUIPA and the New Jersey Constitution. (Id. ¶¶ 16, 29.)

         Plaintiffs further allege that, while Jewish inmates “are allowed to meet daily for group prayer, ” “Muslim inmates at NJSP are not allowe[d] to meet daily for congregational prayer.” (Id. ¶¶ 18-19.) They contend that this violates RLUIPA, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, New Jersey Administrative Code 10A:17-5, and internal policies. (Id. ¶ 30.)

         Additionally, Plaintiffs allege that the violations of their rights, in contrast with permitting Jewish inmates “all of the above religious amendities [sic] according to their religious precepts, ” demonstrates a violation of their Equal Protection rights. (Id. ¶ 31.) Plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment, compensatory damages, punitive damages, and a permanent injunction directing Defendants and others to correct the alleged violations. (Id. at 10-11.) The demand for relief also seeks attorneys' fees and costs, appointment of counsel, and certification as a class action. (Id. at 11.)

         Defendants now move to dismiss the Amended Complaint for failure to state a claim, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).[5] (ECF No. 13.) On January 30, 2018, the Court granted an application by Plaintiffs to extend their time to oppose the motion, giving them an additional month to do so. (See ECF Nos. 14 & 15.) Despite this, Plaintiffs have never filed any opposition to this motion.

         III. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Rule 12(b)(6)

         In resolving a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, under Rule 12(b)(6), “‘courts accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief.'” Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Phillips v. Cty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008)); see also Zimmerman v. Corbett, 873 F.3d 414, 417-18 (3d Cir. 2017); Revell v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 598 F.3d 128, 134 (3d Cir. 2010). In other words, a complaint survives a motion to dismiss if it contains sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); see also Fair Wind Sailing, Inc. v. Dempster, 764 F.3d 303, 308 n.3 (3d Cir. 2014). “A pleading that offers ‘labels and conclusions' or ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). In addition to the allegations of the complaint, a court may consider matters of public record, documents specifically referenced in or attached to the complaint, and documents integral to the allegations raised in the complaint. Mele v. Fed. Reserve Bank of N.Y., 359 F.3d 251, 255 n.5 (3d Cir. 2004).

         Pro se pleadings, as always, will be liberally construed. See Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972); Glunk v. Noone, 689 Fed.Appx. 137, 139 (3d Cir. 2017). Nevertheless, “pro se litigants still must allege sufficient facts in their complaints to support a claim.” Mala v. Crown Bay Marina, Inc., 704 F.3d 239, 245 (3d Cir. 2013).

         B. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the First Amendment

         As a general matter, a plaintiff may pursue a cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for certain violations of constitutional rights. That section provides,

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such ...

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