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Tormasi v. Lanigan

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

January 28, 2019

GARY M. LANIGAN et al., Defendants.




         Plaintiff, Walter A. Tormasi (“Tormasi” or “Plaintiff”), is a state prisoner, presently incarcerated at New Jersey State Prison (“NJSP”), in Trenton, New Jersey. He is proceeding pro se with a civil-rights complaint filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (“NJCRA”), and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”). (Am. Compl., ECF No. 4.) Presently before the Court is a motion by defendants Gary M. Lanigan (“Lanigan”), Marcus O. Hicks (“Hicks”), Melinda Haley (“Haley”), Michelle Ricci (“Ricci”), and Carlos Negron (“Negron”), for dismissal of the Amended Complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (ECF No. 21.) Also before the Court is a motion to dismiss by defendant Dr. Abu Ahsan (“Ahsan”). (ECF No. 33.) Additionally, Tormasi has moved for default judgment against defendants Rabbi Yehuda Spritzer (“Spritzer”) and Imam Jamal El-Shebli (“El-Shebli”). (ECF No. 58.) Those defendants, as well as defendant Steven Johnson have, meanwhile, procured representation by the same counsel representing Lanigan and other prison officials, and they have requested to vacate the entry of default and to join the first dismissal motion. (ECF No. 59.) For the following reasons, the entry of default against Spritzer and El-Shebli is VACATED, the motion for default judgment is DENIED, and the dismissal motions are GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.


         A. Underlying Facts

         Tormasi asserts that he is “actively, sincerely, and faithfully engaged in Jewish worship, ” but that, as he does not subscribe to any particular sect, he is “independently engaged in Jewish self-practice.” (ECF No. 4 ¶ 21.) Tormasi represents that he studies the Torah for two hours every day and regards it as “the law of God as revealed to Moses and as recorded in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures.” (Id. ¶ 22.) Tormasi explains that circumcision is one of Judaism's “highest commandments” and that, because of this, he “believes that circumcision is indeed commanded by God and, consequently, must be performed on him.” (Id. ¶¶ 24-27.)

         Accordingly, Tormasi asserts that, between March 2016 and November 2016, he sent letters to the various defendants, all officials or employees of New Jersey State Prison (“NJSP”), the New Jersey Department of Corrections (“NJDOC”), or Rutgers University Correctional Health Care (“UCHC”), which provides medical services at NJSP, requesting circumcision surgery consistent with his religious beliefs. (See Id. ¶ 30.) These requests were unsuccessful; Tormasi alleges that the “Defendants failed to approve circumcision surgery and/or failed to take remedial action upon learning that circumcision surgery remained unapproved.” (Id. ¶ 31.) He further notes that his request was specifically reviewed by the NJDOC's Religious Issues Committee (“RIC”), “which is responsible for rendering final administrative decisions on religious matters, ” but that the RIC unanimously denied it. (Id. ¶ 32.) Tormasi explains that the reasons variously given him for denial included that he needed a certification of necessity from a rabbi, that circumcision would not be approved unless Tormasi “submitted himself to an Orthodox-style rabbinical board, ” that he had not yet followed the steps for a religious conversion, and that circumcision surgery was not medically necessary. (Id. ¶ 35.)

         Tormasi asserts that he subsequently sent various letters to the defendants disputing these denials and that he “exhausted all administrative remedies extended to him.” (Id. ¶¶ 38-39.) He notes that, “before bringing suit against Defendants, [he] supplied all Defendants with copies of his administrative grievances and requested that they take steps to ensure that circumcision surgery was provided.” (Id. ¶ 40.) He alleges that, “due to his imprisonment, [he] cannot obtain circumcision surgery without going through prison officials and associated medical personnel.” (Id. ¶ 42.)

         B. Procedural History

         Tormasi commenced this action by filing a Complaint, accompanied by a full filing fee, on January 26, 2018. (Compl., ECF No. 1.) Shortly thereafter, Tormasi filed an Amended Complaint, which remains the operative pleading. (ECF No. 4.) The Amended Complaint alleges claims under § 1983, the NJCRA, and RLUIPA, against Lanigan, Hicks, Haley, Ricci, Steven Johnson, Negron, Spritzer, and El-Shebli (collectively, “the DOC Defendants”), as well as two other NJSP employees, Cynthia Johnson and Rev. Warren Wilcox, Jr., and various UCHC employees, being Dr. Ahsan, Joy Camarillo, A.P.N., Lance C. Carver, R.N., and Barbara Jordan, R.N.[1] (See id.) He alleges that defendants Hicks, Haley, Ricci, Steven Johnson, Wilcox, Spritzer, and Negron composed the RIC and were responsible for final decisions as to inmate religious matters. (Id. ¶ 13; see also Id. ¶¶ 32-33.) He further contends that Ahsan, as the medical director at NJSP, was “administratively and/or clinically responsible for the management and direction of the correctional facility's medical services.” (Id. ¶ 17.)

         Tormasi alleges that the refusal to “approve or provide circumcision surgery” substantially burdened his religious exercise, in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of both the United States and New Jersey constitutions and in violation of RLUIPA. (Id. ¶¶ 41, 43.) He also alleges that the refusal to approve circumcision surgery absent compliance with “formal Orthodox conversion protocols” constituted an improper attempt to impose the religious laws of Orthodox Judaism on Tormasi in violation of the Establishment Clause. (Id. ¶¶ 45-54.) Tormasi seeks, among other relief, a declaration that the defendants violated his constitutional rights, an injunction “requiring Defendants or their successors provide Plaintiff with circumcision surgery” and cover all costs except for five dollars, $1 million in compensatory damages, and $5 million in punitive damages. (Id. at 17-18.)

         Defendants Lanigan, Hicks, Haley, Ricci, and Negron filed a motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint for failure to state a claim, under Rule 12(b)(6), arguing that Tormasi's claims are barred by qualified immunity, that he fails to plead a substantial burden on his religious practice under RLUIPA, and that he fails to allege exhaustion of administrative remedies. (ECF No. 21.) Ahsan separately moves to dismiss the Amended Complaint, adopting the arguments from the initial dismissal motion, but also making supplemental arguments that no plausible claim is stated against him as he had no authority to make decisions concerning religious circumcision, that he is shielded by qualified immunity, and that he placed no substantial burden on Tormasi's religious practice under RLUIPA. (ECF No. 33.) Tormasi filed briefs opposing the motions, (ECF Nos. 34 & 37), and the moving defendants filed replies, (ECF Nos. 40 & 41).[2] Tormasi subsequently filed an unpermitted supplemental letter brief in sur-reply. (ECF No. 61.)

         Tormasi requested default against Spritzer and El-Shebli, who had not yet appeared. (ECF No. 51.) The Clerk entered default against those defendants for failure to plead or otherwise defend the action. (Clerk's Entry of Default (Dec. 17, 2018).) On January 9, 2019, Tormasi filed a motion for default judgment against Spritzer and El-Shebli. (ECF No. 58.) Tormasi subsequently filed a letter brief seeking to amend his motion, stating, “Insofar as § 1997e(g)(1) bars default judgments against non-replying defendants, I request that the Court . . . requir[e] Defendants Spritzer and El-Shebli to reply to my Amended Complaint.” (ECF No. 60.) Meanwhile, counsel for the DOC Defendants filed a letter brief seeking to vacate the entry of default against Spritzer and El-Shebli and to allow Spritzer, El-Shebli, and Steven Johnson to join the dismissal motion filed by the other DOC Defendants. (ECF No. 59.)


         Although the motions and letters concern default as to Spritzer and El-Shebli and the request of those defendants and Steven Johnson to join the dismissal motion occurred after the bulk of the motion practice, it will simplify matters if these applications are addressed first. Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 55, the Court “may set aside an entry of default for good cause.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(c); see also Mrs. Ressler's Food Prods. v. KZY Logistics, LLC, 675 Fed.Appx. 136, 139 (3d Cir. 2017). In considering whether to vacate default, a court should consider (1) whether the plaintiff will be prejudiced by a vacatur of default, (2) whether the defendant has a meritorious defense, and (3) whether the defendant's culpable conduct led to the entry of default. See Feliciano v. Reliant Tooling Co., 691 F.2d 653, 656 (3d Cir. 1982); see also Sourcecorp Inc. v. Croney, 412 Fed.Appx. 455, 459 (3d Cir. 2011). Vacatur of a mere entry of default requires a less substantial showing than vacatur of a default judgment. See Feliciano, 691 F.2d at 656.

         In assessing the first factor, I find that Tormasi would not be prejudiced by vacatur of the entry of default against Spritzer and El-Shebli. The action is still in a preliminary stage and Tormasi has walked back his demand for default judgment, noting he would instead accept an order requiring Spritzer and El-Shebli to answer. (See ECF No. 60.) Furthermore, Tormasi has consented to Spritzer and El-Shebli joining the pending dismissal motion. (See ECF No. 61 at ECF p. 3.)

         Second, as established by this Opinion's analysis of the dismissal motions, infra, Spritzer and El-Shebli have at least some meritorious defenses to Tormasi's claims. Finally, counsel for the DOC Defendants represents that the only reason that Spritzer and El-Shebli (as well as Steven Johnson) were not included in the original dismissal motion is that counsel erroneously overlooked requests for representation filed by those defendants. (See ECF No. 59.) Thus, there seems to have been no culpable conduct by these defendants that led to their default. Accordingly, I find that Spritzer and El-Shebli have made a sufficient showing of good cause under Rule 55(c), and the entry of default against them is vacated. Accordingly, Tormasi's motion for default judgment, (ECF No. 58), is denied.

         Furthermore, as Tormasi consents to Spritzer, El-Shebli, and Steven Johnson joining the dismissal motion, (ECF No. 61), that request is granted. All arguments made regarding the initial dismissal motion, (ECF No. 21), will be considered to apply equally to all of the DOC Defendants.[3]


         A. Dismissal Under 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. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008)); see also Zimmerman v. Corbett, 873 F.3d 414, 417-18 (3d Cir. 2017), cert. denied 138 S.Ct. 2623 (2018); Revell v. Port Auth., 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 NJCRA Generally

         As a general matter, a plaintiff may have 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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