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Carter v. L.J. Fleming

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

January 8, 2018

AARON CARTER, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
L.J. FLEMING; M. BROYLES, Food Service Manager; S. STALLAL, Food Service Supervisor; MS. GREGG, State Dietician for the VDOC, Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued: November 15, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia, at Roanoke. Elizabeth Kay Dillon, District Judge. (7:16-cv-00123-EKD-RSB)

         ARGUED:

          David Michael Shapiro, NORTHWESTERN PRITZKER SCHOOL OF LAW, Chicago, Illinois, for Appellant.

          Matthew Robert McGuire, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF VIRGINIA, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellees.

         ON BRIEF:

          Mark R. Herring, Attorney General, Stuart A. Raphael, Solicitor General, Trevor S. Cox, Deputy Solicitor General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF VIRGINIA, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellees.

          Before TRAXLER and FLOYD, Circuit Judges, and J. Michelle CHILDS, United States District Judge for the District of South Carolina, sitting by designation.

          TRAXLER, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Aaron Carter brought a pro se § 1983 action primarily alleging violations of his rights under the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), see 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc, et seq., as the result of his former prison's failure to accommodate his religious dietary needs. The district court granted summary judgment against him, and Carter appeals. Because we conclude that the court erred in granting summary judgment, we reverse and remand to the district court for further proceedings.

         I.

         Carter is a prisoner in the Virginia Department of Corrections. Because his religion (Nation of Islam) has certain dietary restrictions, Carter participated in a prison program known as Common Fare (the "Program"). Under the Program, the prison provided "an appropriate religious diet that meets or exceeds minimum daily nutritional requirements" in exchange for the prisoner's agreement "to abide by all requirements of th[e] program, " including not "eating . . . or possessing unauthorized food items from the main line." J.A. 112. On November 26, 2015, Carter was observed accepting a Thanksgiving Day lunch tray from the main line instead of a Common Fare meal. He was suspended from the Program for one year as a result. Carter filed a grievance within the prison system challenging the suspension on the basis that the Common Fare agreement was already void when he took the meal. He specifically claimed that the prison had violated the Common Fare agreement by changing the menu on October 1, 2015, to include items, such as fried foods, that violated the dietary rules of the Nation of Islam. Carter failed to obtain relief, however.

         Carter subsequently brought suit in federal district court alleging violations of his religious freedom rights under the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause and the RLUIPA.[1] He named as defendants the warden and two other officials at the Wallens Ridge State Prison ("WARSP"), where he was incarcerated, as well as the VDOC dietician. He sought declaratory and injunctive relief, compensatory and punitive damages, and attorneys' fees.

         The district court granted summary judgment against Carter, finding that he had "fail[ed] to disprove the reasonableness of the suspension policy, " J.A. 163, and that he had not created a genuine factual dispute as to whether his religious exercise was substantially burdened by the content of the Common Fare menu, considering that all foods on the Common Fare menu were halal and kosher.[2]

         II.

         Carter argues that the district court erred in granting summary judgment against him on his First Amendment and RLUIPA claims. He contends that each of these claims encompasses challenges both to the changes to the Common Fare menu and the suspension and that, with regard to each ...


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