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Peters v. Davis

United States District Court, E.D. Texas, Tyler Division

June 24, 2019

MICHAEL GEOFFREY PETERS, #2019190, Plaintiff,
v.
LORIE DAVIS, Defendant.

          ORDER ADOPTING REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          RON CLARK, SENIOR DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Michael Geoffrey Peters, an inmate confined in the Texas prison system, proceeding pro se, brought the above-styled and numbered lawsuit alleging various violations of his civil rights against various Defendants. The above entitled and numbered civil action was referred to United States Magistrate Judge John D. Love pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636. After a long procedural history, all that remains is Mr. Peters's claim pursuant to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) against Defendant Lorie Davis, Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. On May 24, 2019, the Magistrate Judge issued his Report and Recommendation (Doc. No. 171), recommending that the Director's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 147) be granted-in-part and denied-in-part. Specifically, the Magistrate Judge recommended that the Director's Motion be granted to the extent Mr. Peters alleges any claims against the Director in her individual capacity and seeks monetary relief, but denied in all other respects.

         Both Mr. Peters and the Director have filed objections (Doc. Nos. 176 and 177) to the Report and Recommendation. The court reviews de novo the portions of the Magistrate Judge's findings to which objections have been raised. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). Having reviewed the Magistrate Judge's findings and the parties' objections, the court OVERRULES the parties' objections (Doc. Nos. 176 and 177) and ADOPTS the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation (Doc. No. 171) as the findings of the court.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         The court reviews objected-to portions of the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation de novo. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 72; 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) (“A judge of the court shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings and recommendations to which objection is made.”). A court conducting a de novo review examines the entire record and makes an independent assessment under the law. Douglass v. United States Auto. Ass'n, 79 F.3d 1415, 1430 (5th Cir. 1996) (en banc), superseded by statute on other grounds, 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) (extending the time to file objections from ten to fourteen days).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Director's Objections (Doc. No. 177)

         The Director makes four specific objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation: (1) the Magistrate Judge did not give proper weight to TDCJ's interest in requiring Peters to follow the rules before being transferred; (2) the Magistrate Judge misstates the issue of the case; (3) the Magistrate Judge misstates the substantial burden standard; and (4) the Magistrate Judge should not have discussed alternative means of accommodation. (Doc. No. 177, at 6-8.)

         a. Deference to TDCJ's Expertise

         The Director's first basis of alleged error argues that the court should have afforded greater weight to TDCJ's interest in limiting access to its Enhanced Jewish Services Program to only practicing Jews. (Doc. No. 177, at 6-7.) In his Report and Recommendation, the Magistrate Judge noted under Holt v. Hobbs, [1] “[p]rison officials are experts in running prisons and evaluating the likely effects of altering prison rules, and courts should respect that expertise.” (Doc. No. 171, at 7, 12.) The Magistrate Judge recognized this standard and afforded TDCJ's opinions appropriate weight. Nonetheless, the Magistrate Judge also recognized that Holt does not entitle prison officials to “unquestioning deference.” (Doc. No. 171, at 7.) Under the Holt standard, the court must look to the marginal interest in enforcing and the specific harms of granting specific exemptions in the particular context of the instant case before the court. Holt, 135 S.Ct. at 863-64. The Magistrate Judge addressed the Director's general concerns about cost, safety, and security, however, found that the Director failed to meet her burden of showing that enforcement of the policy at issue is the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling government interest in this case. (Doc. No. 171, at 13.) Accordingly, the Magistrate Judge gave appropriate weight to TDCJ's expertise when assessing their interest in enforcing their policy.

         b. Identifying the “Religious Exercise” at Issue

         Next, the Director argues that the Magistrate Judge misstates the issues of the case. (Doc. No. 177, at 7.) Specifically, the Director argues that the Magistrate Judge incorrectly identified the religious exercise as maintaining a Kosher diet in accordance with Jewish law. Rather, the Director argues that the religious exercise at issue is transfer to the Stringfellow Unit, which has a Kosher kitchen. The Director further argues that transfer to the Stringfellow Unit is the only remedy sought by Plaintiff in his pleading and Step 1 and 2 grievances. (Doc. No. 177, at 3-5.) Accordingly, the Director argues that Mr. Peters's claim to any other remedy would be unexhausted.

         The Magistrate Judge correctly characterized the “religious exercise” in this case as “maintaining a Kosher diet in accordance with Jewish law.” (Doc. No. 171, at 11.) RLUIPA defines “religious exercise” as “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-5(7)(A). Indeed, throughout his pleadings, Mr. Peters seeks transfer to the Stringfellow Unit. However, the underlying reason Mr. Peters seeks a transfer is because the Stringfellow Unit houses the Enhanced Jewish Services Program and a Kosher kitchen. Thus, Mr. Peters's underlying claim relates to the Kosher food provided at the Stringfellow Unit, not the mere act of transfer. While Mr. Peters's pleadings may be unartfully pled, as a pro se litigant, the court must afford these pleadings liberal construction. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)). While Mr. Peters characterizes the Director's denial of a Kosher diet to Mr. Peters as the Director's denial of his transfer to the Stringfellow Unit, Mr. Peters's pleading is sufficient to challenge the Director's denial of a Kosher diet to Mr. Peters.

         Likewise, the Director's argument with respect to exhaustion is unpersuasive. The Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”) requires, “[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 . . . or any other Federal law, by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.” 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). The purpose of the exhaustion requirement is to give prison “officials ‘time and opportunity to address complaints internally.'” Johnson v. Johnson, 385 F.3d 503, 516 (5th Cir. 2004) (quoting Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 525 (2002)). “[A] grievance should be considered sufficient to the extent that the grievance gives officials a fair opportunity to address the problem that will later form the basis of the lawsuit.” Id. at 517. Mr. Peters's grievances address the Director's denial of his transfer to a unit that has a Kosher kitchen. The Director argues that Mr. Peters claim is restricted to the remedy of transfer and that alternative means of accommodation are not properly part of this case. (Doc. No. 177, at 3-5.) The exhaustion requirement, however, is totally distinct from the remedy sought by a ...


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