United States District Court, E.D. Texas, Tyler Division
ORDER ADOPTING REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED
STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
CLARK, SENIOR DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
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.
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superseded by statute on other grounds, 28 U.S.C.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).
Director's Objections (Doc. No. 177)
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,
Deference to TDCJ's Expertise
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,  “[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.
Identifying the “Religious Exercise” at
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.
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.
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 ...