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Roberts v. Sinclair

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

September 6, 2019

DEMARIO ROBERTS, et al., Plaintiffs,
STEPHEN SINCLAIR, et. al., Defendants.




         This matter comes before the Court on Motions for Summary Judgment filed by the parties. Dkts. #73 and #79. The Court has determined it can rule on these Motions without oral argument.[1] For the reasons stated below, Defendants' Motion is GRANTED and Plaintiffs' Motion is DENIED.


         Plaintiffs Demario Roberts, Mohamed Mohamed, Jeremy Livingston, Naim Lao, and John James are inmates at the Monroe Correctional Complex (“MCC” or “Monroe”), part of the Washington State Department of Corrections (“DOC”). The Defendants are individuals associated with that facility: Stephen Sinclair, the Secretary of the DOC, Belinda Stewart, DOC Corrections Program Administrator, Jamie Dolan, DOC Food Services Administrator, Mike Obeland, Superintendent of MCC, Jeff Uttecht, Superintendent of Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, David Sherman, Chaplain at MCC, Mr. Fischer, another chaplain at MCC, Pete Maxson, Grievance Coordinator at MCC, Sergeant Parks at the MCC, Sergeant Rose at the MCC, and an unidentified chaplain at MCC. See Dkt. #59. Some Defendants are sued in their official capacity, some in their individual capacity, and some in both capacities. Id. Plaintiffs allege that Defendants violated their rights by denying them access to special meals during the month of Ramadan in the Islamic Calendar. See Id. The Amended Complaint lists the following causes of action: violation of the Eighth (and Fourteenth) Amendment's right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), violations of the First (and Fourteenth) Amendment's free exercise of religion and equal protection clauses, and a civil rights claim under § 1983. Id.

         A. DOC's Ramadan Meal Policy in 2018

         Plaintiffs are practicing Muslims who sincerely believe observing Ramadan is required by their religious faith. See Dkt. #80-1 (“Livingston Dep.”), 27:24-30-25; Dkt. #80-3 (“Mohamed Dep.”), 21:20-22:25; Dkt. #80-2 (“James Dep.”), 8:8-8:13, 20:3-20:11; Dkt. #80-9 (“Lao Dep.”), 24:20-26:5; Dkt. #80-10 (“Roberts Dep.”), 12:18-13:7, 23:5-23:7. In accordance with their Islamic faith, Muslims worldwide observe Ramadan as a month of fasting. See Dkt. #79-3 (“2018 Ramadan Memo”) at 5. During Ramadan, participating Muslims refrain from eating and drinking from dawn until sunset. Participating Muslims are permitted to consume food and liquids during the remaining hours (sunset until dawn). See id.; see also Dkt. #80-4 (“Obenland Dep.”), 22:5-23:13.

         Each year, the Washington DOC issues a Memorandum from the Corrections Program Administrator and the Food Services Administrator addressed to “All Incarcerated Individuals.” See Dkt. #79-3; Dkt. #79-21 (“Stewart Dep.”), 63:20-25, 64:1-2. The 2018 Ramadan Memo explains the sign-up process that inmates were required to follow to be added to the Ramadan Meal Program. The memo sets a sign-up deadline two weeks after the memo is issued. Stewart Dep. at 32:12-24, 52:19-54:18. Attached is a Ramadan Meal Request Form the inmates are required to fill out as part of the sign-up process. Stewart Dep. at 34:17-37:9; Dkt. #79-2 at 1-3.

         Inmates are eligible to participate in the Ramadan Meal Program if they satisfy one of two criteria: “Ramadan participant approval will be based on participation in Islamic/Muslim religious programming over the past six (6) months or those currently on a halal meal.” Dkt. #79-3 at 2. Defendant Stewart states that he added these criteria because he thought it would “be as inclusive as possible” while also trying “to weed out individuals who are in the system who have no religious affiliation to Ramadan of any kind and… sign up just because they think it's something different to eat, ” and to ensure that participants “have some sort of sincerity toward the faith.” Stewart Dep. at 43:1-21, 50:17-51:17.

         In 2018, Ramadan began on May 16. The Ramadan Memo was issued on January 16, 2018, and inmates had until 5 pm on January 30, 2018, to sign-up for Ramadan meals. Dkt. #79-2. Facility chaplains had a separate deadline of February 15, 2018, to submit a request for an exception to Defendant Stewart's office for consideration. Stewart Dep. at 69:12-25 to 70:1- 16. Inmates were not notified of the deadline set for chaplains to submit requests for exceptions. Stewart Dep. at 69:12-25 to 70:1-16.

         An inmate who failed to jump through the above procedural hoops would not receive a meal after sunset. Stewart Dep. at 69:2-7. Such an inmate was still eligible to receive normal meals during the day and may have had access to snacks and other such food they purchased for themselves from the commissary. See Dkt. #79-22 at 9.

         The Ramadan Memo indicates that “Ramadan participants will not be provided any other alternative meals during this time.” Dkt. #79-3 at 2. “Alternative” in this context refers to special dietary meals. See Stewart Dep. at 63:3-12.

         B. Facts Specific to these Plaintiffs

         All five Plaintiffs were inmates in DOC's custody during Ramadan 2018.

         1. Demario Roberts

         Plaintiff Roberts has been in DOC custody since May 2017 and was housed at MCC from June 2017 until May 2019. Dkt. #75-1 at 15-16 and 32. He has not requested a religious diet during his incarceration. Roberts indicated in deposition that he has not requested halal meals because he does not like DOC food and “I just don't eat here.” Roberts Dep. at 20:23-21:5. DOC did not receive a Ramadan meal request form from Roberts in 2018. Dkt. #16, (“Stewart Dec.”), ¶ 12; Dkt. #77 (“Sherman Dec.”), ¶ 6. Because DOC did not receive a form, Roberts was not on the list of approved inmates when Ramadan 2018 began.

         On May 21, 2018, DOC received a grievance from Roberts that he was not receiving Ramadan meals. Dkt. #17, (“Maxson Dec.”), at ¶ 7 & Dkt #17-1 at 38. Grievance Coordinator Peter Maxson interviewed Roberts that day and asked Roberts whether he signed up for the Ramadan meal program. Dkt #17 at ¶ 7. Roberts responded he had not. Maxson also asked Roberts whether he had seen the sign-up information posted in January. Roberts said he had, but that he did not submit the required form. Id. Maxson asked Roberts if he agreed to informally resolve the grievance on that basis, and the grievance was marked informally resolved at Level 0. Roberts did not appeal or pursue the grievance further. Id.

         2. Mohamed Mohamed

         Plaintiff Mohamed entered DOC custody in 2015. Mohamed Dep. at 9:13-14. He was housed at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in 2016 and 2017, where he signed up for and participated in the Ramadan meal program. Stewart Dec., at ¶ 13; Mohamed Dep. at 22:19-25. Mohamed transferred to MCC in December 2017 and had an anticipated earned early release date in May. Stewart Dec. at ¶ 13; Mohamed Dep. at 16:16-18. However, in April 2018, while housed in the minimum security unit, Mohamed received an infraction for violating WAC 137-25-030(603), introducing or transferring any unauthorized drug or drug paraphernalia, based on evidence that Mohamed had conspired to introduce marijuana and spice into the prison. Stewart Dec. at ¶ 13. A hearings officer found Mohamed guilty of the infraction and sanctioned him to a loss of 30 days of good conduct time. Id. This extended his early release date past Ramadan, to June 20, 2018, and he was demoted to the medium custody unit at MCC. Id.

         On May 2, 2018, after Mohamed's release date was extended, he sent an electronic kiosk message to the Chaplain and asked “Can I get put on Ramadan List? I missed the deadline...” Dkt. #20-1 at 16. The Chaplain responded that it was too late to sign up. Id. at 17. Mohamed responded by saying “I didnt (sic) have a choice because I lost good time, 30 days. I have to get on that list. Religious purposes cause I will not go too mainline. Thank you.” Id. at 18. For whatever reason, the Chaplain did not pursue the matter further.

         Mohamed filed a grievance on May 16, 2018. Dkt. #17-1 at 41. Grievance Coordinator Maxson investigated, determined DOC had no record of Mohamed submitting the Ramadan form, and concluded that Mohamed could not be given the requested relief as a result. Id. at 43. Whether that decision was reasonable or not, Mohamed did not appeal the grievance response. Defendants note that Mohamed purchased on that same day a significant amount of food from the commissary, including ten packages of white rice, ten packages of cheesy rice and beans, cheese, summer sausages, cookies, Doritos, potato chips, a hot pickle, and swiss rolls. Dkt. #21-1 at 16.

         3. Jeremy Livingston

         Livingston reentered DOC custody at the Washington Corrections Center (WCC) on January 18, 2018. Livingston Dep. at 11:11-13; Stewart Dec. at ¶ 14. He requested a halal diet in February 2018, after the Ramadan sign up deadline. Stewart Dec. at ¶ 14. Livingston had previously been incarcerated with DOC from October 2015 to June 2017 and was familiar with the Ramadan sign-up process through this prior incarceration. Livingston Dep. at ¶ 11:17-12:15, 51:16-18. Livingston did not sign up for Ramadan during the Ramadan sign-up period. Id. at 51:19-52:20.

         On May 15, 2018, Livingston sent a kiosk message to the Chaplain asking to be placed on call out for Ramadan night studies and stating he had not been placed on the Ramadan List. Dkt. #20-1, at 6. Livingston sent another message on May 17, 2018, asking to be put on the Ramadan List. Id. The Chaplain responded and indicated he had no record of Livingston signing up for Ramadan and that he (the Chaplain) had emailed the WCC Chaplain to see if there was a record of Livingston signing up while at WCC. Id. The Chaplain asked if Livingston had a record showing he had signed up, and Livingston responded “I left WCC before I could sign up plus it was too far before Ramadan even started. Is there any way you can accomodadate (sic) me for Ramadan?” Id. In follow up, the Chaplain confirmed that notice of the Ramadan sign-up process was posted in all living units at WCC, and that there was no record of correspondence from Livingston to the WCC Chaplain requesting participation in the Ramadan meal program. Id. at 8; Sherman Dec. at ¶ 6.

         On May 16, 2018, Livingston submitted an emergency grievance stating he requested a Ramadan meal in a kiosk message and had not received the meal. In the grievance, Livingston stated he was on a halal diet and that he “had received it but not my meal for when I break my fast after sundown.” Maxson Dec. at ¶ 9. Maxson interviewed Livingston about his grievance on May 22, 2018, asking why he did not sign up at WCC. Id. Livingston said he was in segregation and never saw a posting. Id. Upon further questioning, Livingston indicated he knew about the sign up process from being in prison before. Id. Maxson explained there was no record of Livingston signing up for Ramadan as was required and asked Livingston whether he agreed his grievance was resolved on this basis. Id. Livingston stated that he “guessed that it was resolved” but believed DOC still had to feed him. Id. The grievance was marked informally resolved. Whether this resolution to the grievance was reasonable or not, Livingston did not appeal the decision. Id.; Livingston Dep. at 77:22-23. Defendants note that he purchased and received numerous food items from the inmate store in May and early June, including summer sausage, corn tortillas, and over a case of ramen noodles. Dkt. #21-1 at 10 and 19.

         4. Naim Lao

         Plaintiff Lao entered DOC custody in June 2017 and arrived at MCC in September 2017. Stewart Dec. at ¶ 15; Lao Dep. at 13:14-24. Chaplain Sherman states he sent Lao a copy of a Ramadan sign-up form in January 2018 as a member of a list of inmates participating in Islamic programs. Sherman Dec. at ¶ 4; Dkt #77-1 at 2. Plaintiff contests this assertion but offers no evidence to create a genuine dispute. Lao did not sign up for the Ramadan meal program before the deadline. On May 17, 2018, Lao sent a kiosk message to the Chaplain to ask to get on the Ramadan List to receive meals. Dkt. #20-1 at 14. The Chaplain responded that he could add Lao to the daily prayer but not the Ramadan list because Lao needed to sign up by January 30, 2018. Id. Lao sent a kiosk message to the Chaplain a few days later complaining he was not on the daily prayer list and the chaplain responded that Lao had been placed on the callout list for prayer. Id. On May 23, 2018, Lao received an exception and was added to the Ramadan Meal List and began receiving meals. Stewart Dec. at ¶ 15; Lao Dep. at 57:1-4.

         5. John James

         Plaintiff James has been incarcerated since the early 1990s. James Dep. at 38:24-25. James transferred to MCC on January 2, 2018. Id. at 8:4-18. Shortly thereafter, James became one of the inmate leaders for Jummah. Counsel Dec., Id. at 26:18-22. James has been on a gluten free diet to treat a medical condition. Id. at 81:16-20, 84:7-9. James submitted a Ramadan meal request form and was added to the Ramadan meal program in January 2018. Id. at 8:22-24. James was on the Ramadan list and received Ramadan meals. Id. at 89:24-90:1. Some of the Ramadan meals contain gluten. Id. at 55:17-56:25. James traded the items in the Ramadan meals to other inmates in exchange for items that he could eat. Id. at 56:23-57:6. James also supplemented his Ramadan meals with food from the commissary and the quarterly package program. Id. at 76:25-80:17. On the first day of Ramadan, James spoke to an unidentified cook about getting a different meal, and this cook told him that the Ramadan meal was all that he or she had for James. Id. at 55:17-56:7. The cook was the only DOC staff person to whom James clearly recalled speaking during Ramadan 2018. Id. at 57:18-58:19. On June 12, 2018, a couple days after this action was filed, DOC received a grievance from James regarding this issue. Dkt. #78 (“Second Maxson Dec.”), ¶ 7. James finished exhausting his administrative remedies after the Amended Complaint in this case was filed. Id.

         C. Events after Ramadan 2018

         Since Ramadan 2018, three of the Plaintiffs have been released from custody- Mohamed, Lao, and Livingston. See Dkt. #73 at 11. Plaintiff Roberts is still incarcerated and successfully signed up and participated in Ramadan 2019. Dkt. #75-1 at 31. Plaintiff James was given a special accommodation of gluten free meals during Ramadan 2019. ...

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