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Dunn v. Kentucky Department of Corrections

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Paducah Division

March 28, 2014

JAMES DUNN, Plaintiff,
KENTUCKY DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS; LaDONNA THOMPSON, KDC Commissioner; Lt. RAYMOND VINSON, Mailroom Supervisor; LARRY WHITE, Warden, and SKYLA GRIEF, Program Director, Defendants.


THOMAS B. RUSSELL, Senior District Judge.

Before the Court is the Motion for Summary Judgment of Defendants Kentucky Department of Corrections; LaDonna Thompson, Commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Corrections; Randy White, Warden of the Kentucky State Penitentiary; Lt; Raymond Vinson, Mailroom Supervisor; and Skyla Grief, Program Director. (Docket No. 15.) Plaintiff James Dunn, pro se, did not submit a response within the designated time. Accordingly, this matter is now ripe for adjudication. For the following reasons, Defendant's Motion will be GRANTED.

Factual Background

On December 7, 2012, Plaintiff James Dunn, an inmate within the Kentucky Department of Corrections housed at the Kentucky State Penitentiary ("KSP"), filed a pro se complaint. Dunn practices the ancient, pre-Christian faith of Odinism, also known as Astaru. The Odinist faith is grounded in runic mysticism; its adherents aspire to the Nine Noble Virtues of courage, truth, honor, fidelity, hospitality, discipline, industriousness, self-reliance, and preservation. (Docket No. 1 at 6.) To realize such virtues, Odinist practitioners communicate with a number of deities. Various sacred objects are central to this practice, including runes used in connection with religious study and medallions depicting Thor's Hammer. (Docket No. 1 at 6-7.)

On May 28, 2012, Dunn requested permission from the KSP Chaplain to request a Thor's Hammer medallion. In response, the Chaplain explained that Dunn was free to order any of the Odinist medallions available in the Kentucky Department of Corrections ("KDC") vendor catalogues. (Docket No. 1 at 7.) Dunn then filed a grievance, alleging that the medallions available were unacceptable, as their designs featured Celtic artwork. (Docket No. 1 at 8.) In response, the institution explained that given KDC's interest in uniformity of materials available to inmates, Dunn could order only from the approved institutional vendors. (Docket No. 1 at 8-9.) The KSP warden upheld the Grievance Committee's decision, pointing to Correctional Policy and Procedures ("CPP") permitting only orders placed with approved vendors. (Docket No. 1 at 9) This conclusion was affirmed by the Commissioner of the KDC, who emphasized that other inmates had not complained about the quality of the medallions available from the approved vendor catalogues and that such medallions satisfied the standards of the Department's religious practice manual. (Docket No. 1 at 9.)

On July 25, 2012, Dunn filed an institutional grievance arguing that KSP failed to maintain a list of approved outside vendors in violation of the CPP. (Docket No. 1 at 10.) Lt. Raymond Vinson's response noted that the institution had three approved vendors. Vinson also emphasized that Dunn could petition the warden for consent to make a special purchase from an outside vendor. (Docket No. 1 at 11.) The Warden confirmed this information, and the decision was upheld by the KDC Commissioner. (Docket No. 1 at 12.) On November 7, 2012, Dunn utilized this alternative ordering method to place an order from a different source; at the time of his Complaint, Dunn's request had not yet been addressed. (Docket No. 1 at 12.)

On August 28, 2012, Dunn filed a grievance alleging that he was restricted from owning a set of personal rune stones. (Docket No. 1 at 13.) Although he acknowledged that the religious reference manual allowed possession of rune cards for religious observation, Dunn stated that he preferred to use stones or wood. (Docket No. 1 at 13.) Dunn's complaint was denied. (Docket No. 1 at 13.) Both levels of institutional appeal confirmed this denial. (Docket No. 1 at 13-14.)

Dunn now sues the Kentucky Department of Corrections and various prison officials in their official capacities under the private cause of action found in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA)[1], seeking injunctive and monetary relief. Dunn alleges three specific counts. First, Dunn alleges that Defendants have not permitted him to purchase an appropriate Thor's Hammer, restricting such purchase to the only hammer for sale by the Union Supply Vendor. Dunn contends that this hammer is deficient, as it depicts Celtic symbolism not associated with Odinism. (Docket No. 1 at 7-8.) Second, Dunn asserts that Defendants have not permitted him to purchase a set of wooden rune stones necessary for observing his religious beliefs. (Docket No. 1 at 16.) Finally, Dunn generally asserts that he is being denied reasonable accommodations to practice his religious beliefs in violation of the Free Exercise Clause. (Docket No. 1 at 15.)

Legal Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate where the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show "that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, a court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences against the moving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

"[N]ot every issue of fact or conflicting inference presents a genuine issue of material fact." Street v. J.C. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1477 (6th Cir. 1989). The test is whether the party bearing the burden of proof has presented a jury question as to each element in the case. Hartsel v. Keys, 87 F.3d 795, 799 (6th Cir. 1996). The plaintiff must present more than a mere scintilla of evidence in support of his position; he must present evidence on which the trier of fact could reasonably find for him. See id. (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986)). Mere speculation will not suffice to defeat a motion for summary judgment: "[T]he mere existence of a colorable factual dispute will not defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment. A genuine dispute between the parties on an issue of material fact must exist to render summary judgment inappropriate." Monette v. Elec. Data Sys. Corp., 90 F.3d 1173, 1177 (6th Cir. 1996), abrogated on other grounds by Lewis v. Humboldt Acquisition Corp., 681 F.3d 312 (6th Cir. 2012).


I. Free exercise claim

Several essential principles guide the Court's analysis of Dunn's free exercise claim. Importantly, "convicted prisoners do not forfeit all constitutional protections by reason of their conviction and confinement in prison." Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 545 (1979). Dunn's First Amendment protections persist despite his incarceration, including its edict that no law ...

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