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LaPlante v. Massachusetts Dep't of Correction

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 6, 2015


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For Daniel LaPlante, Plaintiff, Pro se, Norfolk, MA.

For Massachusetts Department of Correction, Defendant: Richard C. McFarland, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Department of Correction, Boston, MA.

For Gary Roden, Defendant: Richard C. McFarland, LEAD ATTORNEY, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Department of Correction, Boston, MA.

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Daniel LaPlante (" LaPlante" ), a prisoner at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution - Norfolk (" MCI-Norfolk" ), brings this action against the Massachusetts Department of Correction (the " DOC" ) and its superintendent (collectively, the " Defendants" ) under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (" RLUIPA" ) seeking declaratory and injunctive relief from what he claims are unlawful burdens on the practice of his Wicca faith. The case is now before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment.

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A. Procedural History

LaPlante filed this action against the DOC and MCI-Norfolk Superintendent Gary Roden (" Roden" ) on March 14, 2013. Compl., ECF No. 1. Roden answered on May 7, 2013, Answer Def. Roden Compl., ECF No. 8, and the DOC did the same on May 21, Answer Def. Mass. Dep't Corr. Compl., ECF No. 14. LaPlante first moved for summary judgment on April 10, 2014, Pl.'s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 20, and the DOC filed its own cross-motion for summary judgment and an accompanying memorandum roughly two weeks later on April 29, Defs.' Cross-Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 24; Mem. Law Supp. Defs.' Cross-Mot. Summ. J. (" Defs.' Mem." ), ECF No. 25. On May 2, 2014, this Court summarily denied LaPlante's motion as insufficient to carry his burden at the summary judgment stage. Elec. Order, ECF No. 26. Subsequently, on May 15, LaPlante filed another motion for summary judgment, which incorporated his arguments in support of this second motion and in opposition to the DOC's cross-motion. Pl.'s Second Mot. Summ. J., & Resp. Defs.' Cross-Mot. Summ. J. (" Pl.'s Mem." ), ECF No. 28.

B. Factual Background

LaPlante is a sincere adherent of the Wicca faith and is listed as such in the DOC's " Inmate Management System." Compl. ¶ ¶ 7-8. In his complaint, he alleges a number of ways in which the Defendants are burdening the exercise of his faith; for clarity of presentation, the facts associated with each of those alleged burdens will be discussed below alongside the legal analysis of LaPlante's claims. Conversely, the facts that appear directly below speak to LaPlante's Wicca faith and the DOC's practices regarding that faith in a more general sense.

Wicca, a neo-pagan religion focused on nature and magic, has been practiced by inmates at MCI-Norfolk since at least 1985. Id. ¶ ¶ 9-10. To facilitate the practice of Wicca, the DOC claims to provide inmates with access to Tarot cards, an altar cloth, an altar bowl, a magic circle, raven feathers, a brass bell, worry stones, meditation tapes, a chalice, candles, a candleholder, a candlesnuffer, incense, cardboard cutouts, a wand, runes, a cloth bag, several kinds of pendants, prayer oil, a book of shadows, and other reading and listening material. Defs.' Mem., Ex. 2, Aff. Cynthia Sumner (" Sumner Aff." ) ¶ 13, ECF No. 25-2. Wiccans at MCI-Norfolk are allowed to use the Community Services Division (" CSD" ) building for worship; the building also hosts a large number of scheduled activities (religious and otherwise) for up to 250 inmates at a time, supervised by two correction officers. Id. ¶ ¶ 15-17.

These religious accommodations were made in accordance with the Religious Services Handbook (the " Handbook" ), a document created by the DOC with the help of chaplains and prison administrators to align the goal of accommodating inmates' faith with the health, safety, security, and fiscal constraints faced by the prison system. Id. ¶ ¶ 6-7. If an inmate wants a religious accommodation that does not appear explicitly in the Handbook, he may file a formal request and supporting documentation to the superintendent of his prison, who will then forward the information to a designated committee of prison officials. Id. ¶ 10. After reviewing the request, the committee makes a recommendation to the commissioner of the DOC, who then makes a final decision on the accommodation. Id. ¶ 11. Before filing this action, LaPlante attempted to obtain his requested accommodations through this procedure, but his request was denied. Compl. ¶ ¶ 5-6.

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A. Legal Standard

1. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate when a " movant shows 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 fact is considered material if it " might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law," and a dispute over these facts is considered genuine " if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). The burden of proving the lack of genuine dispute over a material fact rests with the moving party. Finn v. Consol. Rail Corp., 782 F.2d 13, 15 (1st Cir. 1986). A court ought grant a motion for summary judgment when " the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case with respect to which she has the burden of proof." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). In evaluating the factual record, however, a court must " disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 151, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000). Where, as here, a court is dealing with cross-motions for summary judgment, it must " consider each motion separately, drawing inferences against each movant in turn." Blackie v. State of Maine, 75 F.3d 716, 721 (1st Cir. 1996) (quoting EEOC v. Steamship Clerks Union, Local 1066, 48 F.3d 594, 603 n.8 (1st Cir. 1995)) (internal quotation marks omitted).


LaPlante brings this case under RLUIPA, 42 U.S.C. § § 2000cc et seq., a statute passed in the wake of Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 110 S.Ct. 1595, 108 L.Ed.2d 876 (1990), and City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507, 117 S.Ct. 2157, 138 L.Ed.2d 624 (1997), to ensure that certain groups receive religious protection beyond that granted by the First Amendment. See Holt v. Hobbs, 135 S.Ct. 853, 859-60, 190 L.Ed.2d 747 (2015). Section 3 of the statute prevents state governments from interfering with the religious exercise of prison inmates. Id. at 860; 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1. Specifically, Section 3 states that " [n]o government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution . . . unless the government demonstrates that the imposition of the burden on that person is in furtherance of a compelling government interest, and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest." 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a). Each of these prongs - the substantial burden and the compelling interest - shall be discussed further below.

a. Substantial Burden

As a threshold matter, an inmate filing a suit against his prison under RLUIPA bears the burden of proving (1) that the prison's actions implicate his religious exercise, and (2) that the prison's actions substantially burden that exercise. Holt, 135 S.Ct. at 862. Religious exercise is defined capaciously as " any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief." Id. at 860 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-5(7)(A)) (internal quotation marks omitted). While a prisoner need not prove that the contested practice is compelled by or central to his religion - or even that the practice is subscribed to by other adherents

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of that religion, id. at 862-63 (citing Thomas v. Review Bd. of Indiana Emp't Sec. Div., 450 U.S. 707, 715-16, 101 S.Ct. 1425, 67 L.Ed.2d 624 (1981)) - he must show that his belief giving rise to that practice is sincere, id. at 862 (citing Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S.Ct. 2751, 2774 n.28, 189 L.Ed.2d 675 (2014)). As the Defendants do not contest the sincerity of LaPlante's beliefs, there is no need to expound further on this issue.

What is disputed here, however, is whether the DOC has substantially burdened LaPlante's Wicca faith - indeed, LaPlante's first motion for summary judgment was denied on the ground that he had not adequately demonstrated a substantial burden. Elec. Order, ECF No. 26. RLUIPA itself does not define the term " substantial burden," but the Supreme Court has suggested in dicta that the term covers situations in which a prisoner is required to " engage in conduct that seriously violates [his] religious beliefs." Holt, 135 S.Ct. at 862 (alteration in original) (quoting Hobby Lobby, 134 S.Ct. at 2775 (discussing this standard under RFRA, which applies to the federal rather than state governments)) (internal quotation marks omitted) (observing that a policy that forces a prisoner to choose between violating his beliefs and facing discipline is a substantial burden, but noting that the defendant did not contest that its policy was a substantial burden). Similarly, the First Circuit has not directly defined the term as it applies in the prison context, but it has accepted without formally deciding that the term encompasses policies that put " substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs." LeBaron v. Spencer, 527 F.App'x 25, 29 (1st Cir. 2013). In the land use context under RLUIPA, on the other hand, the First Circuit has adopted an approach that eschews an abstract test in favor of a functional analysis of the facts of a particular case. Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield v. City of Springfield, 724 F.3d 78, 95 (1st Cir. 2013).

Overall, while the existence of a substantial burden may often be context-specific, " [c]ourts have little difficulty in concluding that an outright ban on a particular religious exercise is a substantial burden." LeBaron, 527 F.App'x at 29 (quoting Cryer v. Mass. Dep't of Corr.,763 F.Supp.2d 237, 247 (D. Mass. 2011) (Saris, J.)). On the other hand, " incidental effects of government programs, which may make it more difficult to practice certain religions but which have no tendency to coerce individuals into acting contrary to their religious beliefs," do not constitute substantial burdens. Lyng v. Nw. Indian Cemetery Protective ...

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