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Slater v. Askew

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

January 30, 2018

CHAPLAIN ASKEW, et al., Defendants.




         Plaintiff Demon Slater, an inmate in the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections when he filed this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action, [1] claims Defendants violated his First Amendment right to the free exercise of his religion, his right to equal protection, and his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) by: (1) not allowing him to “grow [his] beard the width of [his] hand or longer”; (2) failing to allow Jumu'ah religious services in a similar location to other religious services, rather than outside the facility or in the gym; (3) not providing religious identification cards to inmates; (4) delaying disbursement of religious mail; and (5) denying him the ability to have Shi'a classes and to possess religious materials such as books, a prayer rug, and DVDs. Named as defendants are Deputy Warden Patrice Richie, Warden Walter Myers, and Chaplain Anthony Askew. Slater seeks declaratory and injunctive relief for the alleged violations of his constitutional rights, any additional relief the court deems proper, and the costs of this proceeding. Docs. 1, 7, 9 & 14.

         Defendants filed a special report and supporting evidentiary materials addressing Slater's claims for relief. In these filings, Defendants deny that they acted in violation of Slater's constitutional rights and argue that this case is due to be dismissed because Slater failed to exhaust the administrative remedy available to him before filing these claims. Docs. 29 at 10 & 29-5. Defendants base their exhaustion defense on Slater's failure to submit a request for religious assistance from the Religious Activities Review Committee as permitted by Administrative Regulation No. 461. See Doc. 29-5.

         Upon receipt of Defendants' special report, the court issued an order on January 6, 2017, providing Slater an opportunity to file a response to the report in which he was specifically directed to address “Defendants' argument that he [] failed to exhaust his available administrative remedies as required by 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a)” prior to filing this federal civil action. Doc. 32 at 1 (footnote omitted). The order advised Slater that his response should be supported by affidavits or statements made under penalty of perjury and other evidentiary materials. Doc. 32 at 3. This order further cautioned Slater that unless “sufficient legal cause” was shown within ten days of entry of the order “why such action should not be undertaken, . . . the court may at any time [after expiration of the time for his filing a response to this order] and without further notice to the parties (1) treat the special report and any supporting evidentiary materials as a motion to dismiss, and (2) after considering any response as allowed by this order, rule on the motion in accordance with the law.” Doc. 32 at 3. In response to this order, Slater does not dispute his failure to seek relief from the Religious Activities Review Committee prior to filing his lawsuit. See Docs. 34 & 35.

         Pursuant to the January 6, 2017 order, the court deems it appropriate to treat Defendants' special report as a motion to dismiss regarding the exhaustion defense. This case is now pending on Defendants' motion to dismiss. Bryant v. Rich, 530 F.3d 1368, 1374-75 (11th Cir. 2008) (internal quotations omitted) (“[A]n exhaustion defense . . . is not ordinarily the proper subject for a summary judgment [motion]; instead, it should be raised in a motion to dismiss, or be treated as such if raised in a motion for summary judgment.”); see also Trias v. Fla. Dept. of Corrs., 587 F. App'x 531, 534 (11th Cir. 2014) (affirming that district court properly construed defendant's “motion for summary judgment as a motion to dismiss for failure to exhaust administrative remedies”).


         A. Exhaustion

         In addressing the requirements of 42 U.S.C. § 1997e exhaustion, the Eleventh Circuit has

recognized that [t]he plain language of th[is] statute makes exhaustion a precondition to filing an action in federal court. This means that until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted, a prisoner is precluded from filing suit in federal court.

Leal v. Ga. Dept. of Corrs., 254 F.3d 1276, 1279 (11th Cir. 2001) (citations and internal quotations omitted). Furthermore, “the question of exhaustion under the PLRA [is] a ‘threshold matter' that [federal courts must] address before considering the merits of the case, ” and that cannot be waived. Myles v. Miami-Dade Cnty. Corr. & Rehab. Dept., 476 F. App'x 364, 366 (11th Cir. 2012) (quoting Chandler v. Crosby, 379 F.3d 1278, 1286 (11th Cir. 2004)).

When deciding whether a prisoner has exhausted his remedies, the court should first consider the plaintiff's and the defendants' versions of the facts, and if they conflict, take the plaintiff's version of the facts as true. If in that light, the defendant is entitled to have the complaint dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, it must be dismissed. If the complaint is not subject to dismissal at this step, then the court should make specific findings in order to resolve the disputed factual issues related to exhaustion.

         Myles, 476 F. App'x at 366 (citations and internal quotations omitted). Consequently, a district court “may resolve disputed factual issues where necessary to the disposition of a motion to dismiss for failure to exhaust [without a hearing]. The judge properly may consider facts outside of the pleadings to resolve a factual dispute as to exhaustion where doing so does not decide the merits, and the parties have a sufficient opportunity to develop the record.” Trias, 587 F. App'x at 535. Based on the foregoing, the Eleventh Circuit has rejected an inmate-plaintiff's argument that “disputed facts as to exhaustion should be decided” only after a trial either before a jury or judge. Id. at 534.

         III. ...

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