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Luther v. White

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky

May 21, 2019

DION L. LUTHER PLAINTIFF
v.
RANDY WHITE, et al. DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          Thomas B. Russell, Senior Judge.

         This matter comes before the Court upon Defendant Skyla Grief's Third Motion for Summary Judgment. (R. 99). Plaintiff Dion L. Luther, proceeding pro se, has responded, (R. 102), and Greif's time to reply has lapsed. As such, this matter is ripe for adjudication and, for the following reasons, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Grief's Motion (R. 99) is GRANTED.

         BACKGROUND

         Inmate and pro se Plaintiff, Dion L. Luther, has filed suit against various prison officials at Kentucky State Penitentiary (KSP), including Defendant Skyla Grief, bringing a bevy of claims all relating to events that Luther claims infringed upon his right to practice Bobo Shanti Rastafarianism while incarcerated. At this stage of the proceedings, the only claim remaining against Defendant Grief is a First Amendment claim for monetary damages stemming from her denying Luther the right to purchase and burn incense under supervision in the Inmate Religious Center as a congregate use item.

         On February 8, 2019, the Court denied Grief summary judgment on Luther's First Amendment claim in large part because Grief's motion for summary judgment, without support, started from the premise that Luther had requested incense for personal use and to burn in his cell. However, Luther's Response alleged that he had requested the incense for congregate use and to be burned in the Inmate Religious center. Luther's Response also provided the Court with evidence that, while he was denied the right to burn incense due to fire-safety concerns, Native American inmates were permitted to burn sage-grass under supervision within the Inmate Religious Center. Grief failed to counter either of these allegations with evidence to the contrary. In fact, Grief failed to reply altogether. With evidence that other inmates were permitted to burn substances within the Inmate Religious Center and without Grief providing a legitimate penological interest in denying Luther that same right, the Court was forced, for the purposes of summary judgment, to construe Grief's denial as arbitrary infringement upon Luther's sincerely held religious beliefs. Thus, the Court denied Grief's motion for summary judgment. But the Court also granted Grief leave to refile so as to properly respond to Luther's supported arguments and provide the Court with proof that she denied Luther's request for incense pursuant to some legitimate penological interest. Accordingly, Grief now files the instant Third Motion for Summary Judgment, and again moves the Court to dismiss Luther's First Amendment claim against her.

         It is also important to note by way of background that a settlement conference was held between the Parties at KSP on January 4, 2019. At the settlement conference, Luther explained that the Rastafarian faith requires its practitioners to smoke marijuana to “commune with god.” However, some Rastafarians use the smoke from incense to simulate the smoke from marijuana. Thus, Luther explained the scented oils Greif had offered instead of the incense were not an adequate substitution because he needed the smoke, not necessarily the scent, from the incense. Upon understanding that the smoke, not just the scent, was integral to Luther's religious practice, the Defendants indicated at the settlement conference that they would allow Luther to purchase the incense for congregate use and allow Luther to burn the incense under supervision within the Inmate Religious Center, just as the Native American inmates are permitted to burn sage-grass.

         STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate when the record, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, reveals “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). A genuine dispute of material fact exists where “there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). The Court “may not make credibility determinations nor weigh the evidence when determining whether an issue of fact remains for trial.” Laster v. City of Kalamazoo, 746 F.3d 714, 726 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Logan v. Denny's, Inc., 259 F.3d 558, 566 (6th Cir. 2001); Ahlers v. Schebil, 188 F.3d 365, 369 (6th Cir. 1999)). “The ultimate question is ‘whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so onesided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.'” Back v. Nestlé USA, Inc., 694 F.3d 571, 575 (6th Cir. 2012) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251-52).

         As the party moving for summary judgment, Grief must shoulder the burden of showing the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact as to at least one essential element of Luther's claims. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); see also Laster, 746 F.3d at 726 (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986)). Assuming Grief satisfies her burden of production, Luther “must-by deposition, answers to interrogatories, affidavits, and admissions on file-show specific facts that reveal a genuine issue for trial.” Laster, 746 F.3d at 726 (citing Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324).

         DISCUSSION

         Grief's argument as advanced in her Third Motion for Summary Judgment essentially boils down this: At the time Luther requested the incense, Grief understood, or more accurately misunderstood, Luther to require the incense for its smell-not its smoke. Therefore, Greif denied Luther the incense but instead offered him scented oils. It was not until the January fourth settlement conference that Grief learned the smoke produced by the incense was integral to Luther religious exercise. Given Grief's misunderstanding, her denying Luther incense was a rational restriction on Luther's Free Exercise rights reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest-namely fire-safety. Moreover, the scented oil Grief offered instead of incense was a reasonable accommodation. Grief argues separately that she is entitled to qualified immunity.

         Importantly, while Grief's Third Motion for Summary Judgment depends only on the misunderstanding detailed above, Grief's affidavit identifies a second misunderstanding allegedly held by Grief. According to Grief's affidavit, prior to the January fourth settlement conference, she also thought that Luther wanted the incense for personal use because Luther did not follow the institutional procedure for purchasing congregate use items when he purchased the incense.

         Luther's Response only addresses this second misunderstanding, and fails to address the more important one, upon which Grief's Third Motion for Summary Judgment is predicated. Luther never challenges Grief's claim that she did not know the smoke from the incense was integral to Luther's religious practice. He never claims to have explained this to her or presents any evidence that would otherwise indicate Grief was aware of this fact. Instead, Luther argues that Grief did in fact know that Luther wanted the incense for congregate use within the Inmate Religious Center and therefore, Grief's Motion should be denied. While the Court indeed finds there to be a factual dispute as to whether Grief knew Luther wanted the incense for congregate use, for the reasons that follow, the Court must nonetheless dismiss Luther's First Amendment Free Exercise Claim against Grief.

         As the Court has already noted in this case, prisoners are not without the protections of the First Amendment while incarcerated, including the right to free exercise of religion. O'Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 348, 107 S.Ct. 2400, 96 L.Ed.2d 282 (1987); Pell v. Procunier,417 U.S. 817, 822, 94 S.Ct. 2800, 41 L.Ed.2d 495 (1974); Cruz v. Beto,405 U.S. 319, 92 S.Ct. 1079, 31 L.Ed.2d 263 (1972) (per curiam). However, such constitutional protections can be limited in the context of valid penological objectives. O'Lone, 482 U.S. at 348; Pell, 417 U.S. at 822-23. In Turner v. Safley,482 U.S. 78, 84, 107 S.Ct. 2254, 96 L.Ed.2d 64 (1987), the Supreme Court held that regulations infringing on an inmate's constitutional rights are subject to rational basis review. ...


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