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Alston v. Eldridge

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

September 24, 2019

THOMAS ELDRIDGE, Clinical Chaplain; BETTY BROWN, Director of Chaplain Services; SUSAN ADDAMS, Regional Chaplain; and CHARLES T. JOHNSON, Assistant Superintendent, Defendants.



         This matter is before the court on defendants’ motion for summary judgment (DE 36) pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. The motion was fully briefed and the issues raised are ripe for decision. For the reasons that follow, the court grants the motion.


         Plaintiff, a state inmate proceeding pro se, commenced this action by filing complaint and motion to appoint counsel on January 26, 2017, alleging violations of his civil rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq. Plaintiff alleges defendants Thomas Eldridge (“Eldridge”), Betty Brown (“Brown”), Susan Addams (“Addams”) and Charles Johnson (“Johnson”) violated his rights to freely practice his religion and discriminated against him by rejecting a Rastafarian medallion he received in the mail. As relief, plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages, declaratory relief, and a permanent injunction prohibiting prison officials from discriminating against Rastafarians.

         On June 20, 2017, the court denied plaintiff’s motion to appoint counsel, conducted its initial frivolity review of the complaint, and allowed the action to proceed. On January 3, 2018, the court entered case management order governing discovery and pretrial motions practice.

         Plaintiff filed second motion to appoint counsel on March 15, 2018. The court denied the motion on April 6, 2018, to the extent plaintiff requested general appointment of counsel, but informed plaintiff that North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, Inc. (“NCPLS”) is available to assist plaintiff with discovery pursuant to Standing Order 17-SO-03. Plaintiff accepted assistance from NCPLS. The parties completed discovery on or about July 20, 2018, and NCPLS moved to withdraw from representing plaintiff that same day. The court granted NCPLS’s motion to withdraw.

         On October 26, 2018, defendants filed the instant motion for summary judgment. In support, defendants rely upon a memorandum of law, statement of material facts, and the following: 1) affidavit of defendant Eldridge and accompanying exhibits; 2) affidavit of defendant Addams and accompanying exhibits; and 3) defendants’ responses to plaintiff’s discovery requests.

         On November 5, 2018, plaintiff filed motion to compel discovery responses, which was fully briefed. Also on November 5, 2018, plaintiff responded in opposition to the instant motion for summary judgment, relying upon a memorandum of law, opposing statement of material facts, and the following: 1) plaintiff’s declaration; 2) North Carolina Department of Public Safety (“DPS”) policies concerning inmate religious practices; 3) plaintiff’s administrative grievances concerning the Rastafarian medallion; 4) correspondence between plaintiff and DPS staff concerning the medallion; 5) DPS memorandum concerning the medallion; and 6) defendants’ responses to plaintiff’s discovery requests. On November 8, 2018, plaintiff filed supplemental response in opposition, relying upon a second opposition statement of material facts, and additional discovery responses produced by defendants.

         On December 10, 2018, the court entered order finding plaintiff’s motion to compel moot because defendants’ made supplemental production of documents to plaintiff. The court, however, permitted plaintiff to file second supplemental response to the instant motion for summary judgment to account for the newly-produced discovery responses. Plaintiff filed supplemental response on December 28, 2018, relying upon the additional discovery responses.


         As defendants move for summary judgment, the court recounts the facts in the light most favorable to plaintiff.

         Plaintiff is a state inmate in DPS custody at the Polk Correctional Institution (“Polk C.I.”), and he practices the Rastafarian religion. (Pl.’s Decl. (DE 48) ¶ 4; Eldridge Aff. (DE 39-1) ¶ 3). Plaintiff is assigned to the high control/restrictive housing unit at the Polk C.I. due to disciplinary issues. (Eldridge Aff. (DE 38) ¶ 10). Defendant Eldridge is the senior chaplain at the Polk C.I.; defendant Addams is a DPS regional chaplain; defendant Brown was the DPS director of chaplaincy services during the relevant time frame; and defendant Johnson was the assistant superintendent at the Polk C.I. (Eldridge Aff. (DE 39-1) ¶ 2; Addams Aff. (DE 39-2) ¶ 2; Pl.’s Decl. (DE 43) ¶¶ 6-8).

         On September 9, 2016, plaintiff received a Rastafarian medallion in the mail from his grandmother. (Pl.’s Decl. (DE 48) ¶ 4). Prison staff forwarded the item to defendant Eldridge, who determined the item did not comply with DPS policy and thus rejected plaintiff’s request to retain the item for religious purposes. (Id. ¶ 5). Plaintiff filed a grievance concerning the rejection. (Id. ¶¶ 7-8). In response, defendant Eldridge explained that Rastafarians may retain a religious medallion, but only if it does not come with a necklace or lanyard. (Pl.’s Resp. Ex. E (DE 42-5) at 1).[1] After further discussion between defendant Eldridge and defendant Johnson (the Polk C.I. assistant superintendent), defendants determined plaintiff may order a new medallion if he agreed to allow prison staff to remove the necklace or lanyard before issuing it to plaintiff. (Id. at 2). Plaintiff refused to order a new medallion. (See Pl.’s Decl. (DE 48)).

         For Rastafarian inmates on high control status (like plaintiff), DPS policy provides that they may possess a religious medallion, but it cannot be worn around the neck. (Eldridge Aff. (DE 39-1) ¶ 10; Eldridge Aff. Ex. E (DE 39-1) at 46). This is the primary reason defendant Eldridge rejected plaintiff’s medallion. (Eldridge Aff. (DE 39-1) ¶ 10). As noted, defendants attempted to accommodate plaintiff’s request for the medallion by allowing him to order another one through ...

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