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Goff v. Todd

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

February 27, 2018


         SECTION “F” (2)



         Plaintiff, Darrion Ar'mond Goff, is currently a prisoner in the Rayburn Correctional Center (“Rayburn”) in Angie, Louisiana. He filed this complaint pro se and in forma pauperis pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He alleges that defendant Lieutenant Colonel Mike Todd damaged, disrespected and deprived him of his religious items in derogation of his right to free exercise of religion; that defendant Warden Robert Tanner did not properly investigate the claim he filed with respect to the handling of his religious items; and that defendants retaliated against him for filing a claim. Plaintiff seeks monetary damages in the total amount of $50, 000. Record Doc. No. 1 (Complaint at ¶ V).

         Pending before this court is defendants' motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, which was filed on December 6, 2017. On December 18, 2017, I conducted a telephone conference in this matter for all the purposes contemplated in Spears v. McCotter, 766 F.2d 179 (5th Cir. 1985), and its progeny. Record Doc. No. 10. Plaintiff filed a timely response to defendants' motion to dismiss the same day. Record Doc. No. 14. Plaintiff has since provided the court with copies of the disciplinary records and incident reports discussed during his Spears hearing. Record Doc. No. 15.


         In plaintiff's complaint he asserted four claims, including: (1) a violation of his First Amendment “Right to Practice Religion Freely”; (2) intimidation and threats by Todd when Todd told him he would have to send his kufi caps home;[1] (3) Tanner did not fully investigate his claims and Tanner's response was unrelated to his allegations; and (4) retaliation for filing an Administrative Remedy Procedure (“ARP”). Record Doc. No. 1 (Complaint at ¶ IV). During his Spears hearing, plaintiff outlined three claims: (1) violation of his religious rights when his religious items were disrespected; (2) Warden Tanner did not properly investigate his grievance; and (3) he was retaliated against for filing a grievance.

         A. Plaintiff's Testimony

         Plaintiff testified that he is incarcerated in Rayburn for an armed robbery and aggravated battery conviction in July 2008, for which he is serving a 30-year sentence. He confirmed that the claims he asserts in this case arise from his incarceration in Rayburn.

         Plaintiff testified that on April 17, 2017, Lieutenant Colonel Todd went through his personal items when he was transferred from Allen Correctional Center (“Allen”) to Rayburn. He asserted that there was already a “vibe” against inmates who were transferred from Allen to Rayburn because offenders from Allen had a reputation of “not having respect for authority.” Goff stated that “Colonel Todd took it upon himself to go through my items and determine what I [was] allowed to have and what I [was] not allowed to have.” It was during this search, plaintiff stated, that Todd told him that his kufi caps had to be sent home. Goff testified that he explained to Todd that the caps are religious items, that the Department of Corrections allows him to have the caps and that it is his constitutional right to practice his religion freely. Plaintiff stated that Colonel Todd responded, “‘well, this is not the Department of Corrections, this is Rayburn. You have to send them home or I will have them destroyed. Here at Rayburn Correctional Center, we do things differently.'” Goff asserted that he told Todd that the Department of Corrections policy allows inmates to retain religious items. He testified that he has been incarcerated long enough to understand the policies behind transfers and the items inmates are allowed to have.

         When questioned about the subject items, plaintiff explained that kufi caps are religious head coverings worn by Muslims. He confirmed that he is a practicing Muslim. “After we clean ourselves, we throw these hats on to make our prayers. We put these hats on to either acknowledge ourselves or remind ourselves of what is our obligation of upholding this faith.” Goff stated that the message conveyed by the Muslim faithful who wear kufis is “that we mean no harm, that we are respectful individuals, and we are faithful men of God. Mainly, these hats are used when we are praying so we don't get dirt[y] when we prostrate ourself on the ground.”

         Plaintiff testified that his kufi caps were sent home; he has not had a kufi cap since his were sent away; and the absence of his kufi caps prevents him from praying properly because he is “not praying correctly in the manner that [he has] been taught and in the manner we Muslims are to pray.” Goff stated that he uses “an ordinary skullcap” given to him by another inmate as a substitute for the kufi. Plaintiff explained that a kufi cap has different threading and design than the skullcap he uses, which is thick and causes him to sweat. Goff stated that sweating while wearing his skullcap “invalidates the whole meaning of being clean” while praying. Plaintiff confirmed that he is still able to pray, however. He affirmed that his allegation is that wearing a kufi cap is necessary to proper religious observance and that the skullcap is not a sufficient substitute.

         Goff also alleged that his Qu'ran was disrespected and damaged by Todd during Todd's initial search of his personal items upon transfer from Allen. Plaintiff testified that Todd ripped the spine away from the pages of the book and tore out the marker ribbon of his Qur'an while checking it for contraband. When describing the subject incident, Goff admitted, “for a second I almost lost control, and I almost reacted in a manner that I think I would've regretted because of the situation that was happening and the value of these religious items.” Goff stated that his Qur'an was returned to him in damaged condition, but he testified that he still uses the book for religious purposes.

         Goff stated that he received a memorandum on April 21, 2017, stating that several of his kufi caps were sent home with money drawn from his account. Plaintiff testified that he filed a grievance concerning the denial of his kufi caps and the damage to his Qur'an on April 22, 2017. Goff explained that Warden Tanner rejected his grievance with the stated reason that a family member picked up his kufi caps during visitation, per Goff's request. He asserted that Warden Tanner did not properly investigate the grievance. Plaintiff claimed that he could not have requested that his kufi caps be picked up by a family member if they were sent home by jail personnel in the mail.

         Plaintiff confirmed that his third complaint is that he was retaliated against for filing the grievance on April 22. He stated that he was housed in a cell-block so the jail could “see about my conduct and monitor me for a certain period of time to see if I am able to re-enter into general population.” Goff asserted that he was confined to his cell-block for non-disciplinary reasons since his arrival at Rayburn in April 2017. He admitted, however, that he had a history of defiance-related disciplinary problems at Allen, which he confirmed was likely the reason he was still being monitored at Rayburn.

         Plaintiff testified that he was involved in two incidents at Rayburn, one on July 26, 2017 and another on November 19, 2017, which led to disciplinary hearings. Goff testified that he first experienced retaliation when Colonel Todd entered his cell-block on July 26. Plaintiff asserted that he was standing in his cell door and could see Todd walk through the door, where he was greeted by Sergeant William Jones. Goff asserted that this was the first time Jones had worked this cell-block and that he had never spoken with Jones. Plaintiff stated that Jones accused him of yelling obscenities down the cell-block. Goff read Jones' account from a disciplinary record. He denied saying anything to Jones. Plaintiff testified that he was charged with defiance and aggravated disobedience based on this incident and that he had a hearing. Goff confirmed that he made a statement on his own behalf before hearing officers and was convicted of the disciplinary offenses after the hearing. Plaintiff stated that he was given eight (8) weeks cell confinement, four (4) weeks loss of telephone privilege and four (4) weeks loss of canteen privilege.

         Goff testified that the second incident occurred on November 19, 2017, after a church service. He stated that he believes the allegations contained in the disciplinary write-ups from the incidents on July 26 and November 19 are untrue. Goff asserted that the only reason he was convicted of these two offenses is because officer reports are given more weight than the statements of inmates. “After 10 years of being incarcerated, ” he stated, “I've never received these kinds of write-ups.” Plaintiff testified that he was also “denied school” and “all sorts of things” due to retaliation. He testified that he believes his life is in danger due to the grievance he filed but that he has not been physically harmed.

         B. Plaintiff's Disciplinary Records

         Goff's disciplinary records contain reports concerning three separate incidents on July 8, July 26 and November 19, 2017. On July 8, a disciplinary report was filed against Goff for “violently shaking” his cell door bars. Record Doc. No. 15 at p. 14. He pled guilty and was convicted of property destruction. Id.

         Goff's records from the July 26 incident indicate that he was charged with defiance and aggravated disobedience. Id. at p. 4. Officer Jones reported that Goff yelled obscenities at him. Id. Plaintiff pled not guilty, but he was given a sentence of eight (8) weeks cell confinement, four (4) weeks canteen loss and four (4) weeks telephone privilege loss after a hearing on July 28, 2017. Id. The hearing officers checked off “Report is Clear and Precise, ” “Officer's version is determined to be more credible than inmate's” and “Only defense is denying the contents of report” as the reasons for the hearing disposition and checked “Seriousness of Offense” under the reasons for sentence section. Id. Goff filed an ARP grievance on August 2, 2017, in response to the disposition of his July 28 hearing. Id. at pp. 6-8. He requested three forms of relief, including “no more...[r]etaliation from Col. Mike Todd and/or officer(s) of Rayburn Correctional Center.” Id. Goff's relief request form was rejected by the warden on August 8, 2017, because “[d]isciplinary matters are not appealable through the Administrative Remedy Procedure.” Id. at p. 9.

         The third disciplinary report in Goff's records, from November 19, 2017, states that he did not return to his cell-block as he was ordered after the “church callout, ” which was a form of aggravated disobedience. Id. at p. 5. Goff appealed his sentence, a loss of two (2) weeks of yard and recreation time, and his appeal was denied on December 19, 2017. Id. at p. 10. Warden Tanner's appeal decision, id., states:

On appeal, you have not provided any evidence to dispute the reporting officer's version of the incident. The rule violation report is clear and concise and provides sufficient evidence of the rule violation as charged. Because of the seriousness of the offense and the need to ensure the security and orderly running of the facility, I concur with the judgment of the Disciplinary Board.


         On December 6, 2017, defendants filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted and asserting qualified immunity. Record Doc. No. 10. No evidence of any kind has been submitted in support of the motion, which is asserted strictly under the Rule 12(b)(6) standard. First, defendants assert that, to the extent plaintiff has asserted any monetary claims against defendants in their official capacities, “[s]tate officials sued in an official capacity for monetary relief are immune from suit in federal court pursuant to the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” Record Doc. No. 10-1 at p. 3. Defendants concede that plaintiff sues defendants in their individual capacities. Id.

         Second, defendants argue that claims for damages against them in their individual capacities are barred by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”). Id. at p. 6. Defendants cite Fifth Circuit precedent holding that RLUIPA does not create a private right of action against prison officials in their individual capacities. Id.

         Third, defendants state that plaintiff's claims against defendants, in their individual capacities, for compensatory damages are barred by 42 U.S.C. § 1997(e)(e) because plaintiff has not alleged a physical injury. Id.

         Fourth, defendants assert that they are entitled to qualified immunity in their individual capacities. Id. at pp. 6-7.

         Finally, defendants argue that plaintiff has failed to plead sufficient facts to support his claims. Id. at p.8. Defendants state that plaintiff has failed to explain which policy was invoked in the decision to send his kufi caps home; how his Qur'an was mishandled, disrespected or damaged; how his right to exercise his religious beliefs was denied by Todd's actions; and which facts suggest that defendants denied him a reasonable opportunity to exercise his religious freedom. Id. at p. 9. Defendants cite Fifth Circuit precedent concerning the restriction of kufi cap use in relation to the legitimate penological interest of safety; e.g., weapons could be hidden inside a kufi cap. Defendants also state that to the extent plaintiff is asserting destruction or deprivation of property without due process, his due process rights were not violated and the matter was sufficiently investigated by Warden Tanner. Id. at pp. 10-11.

         As to plaintiff's retaliation claim, defendants argue that plaintiff has not alleged that either named defendant retaliated against him and, as such, plaintiff's “naked assertion[s]” are insufficient. Id. at pp. 11-12. Defendants cite the four elements necessary for plaintiff to assert a retaliation claim under Section 1983, established by the Fifth Circuit in Jones v. Greninger, 188 F.3d 322 (5th Cir. 1999): “(1) a specific constitutional right, (2) the defendant's intent to retaliate against the prisoner for his or her exercise of that right, (3) a retaliatory adverse act, (4) causation.” Greninger, 188 F.3d at 324-25. Defendants state that plaintiff's conclusory allegations fail to show a retaliatory motive or intent by defendants in response to plaintiff filing an ARP. Id. at p. 12.

         Plaintiff's only complaint against defendants Todd and Tanner, defendants argue, involves the handling of his Qu'ran and the decision made during his ARP. Id. at p. 13. “[I]t is important to note, ” defendants assert, “that Plaintiff does not identify a discriminatory policy that was the driving force behind any of the alleged acts that now form the basis of this suit. The ...

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