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Ali v. Prince George's County

United States District Court, D. Maryland

December 13, 2019

SEIFULLAH A. ALI, Plaintiff,
v.
PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY; MARY LOU MCDONOUGH; CORENNE LABBE; W. STEPHAN SIMMONS; AMANDA WELCH Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Paul W. Grimm, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Seifullah A. Ali alleges that while he was incarcerated at Prince George's County Detention Center (“PGCDC”), he was denied the ability to exercise his religion. ECF No. 60 (“Am. Compl.”) ¶ 1. Plaintiff names Prince George's County (“the County”), along with PGCDC employees Mary Lou McDonough, Corenne Labbe, W. Stephan Simmons and Amanda Welch (the “Individual Defendants”), in their official and individual capacities, as defendants. Pending is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, ECF No. 72.[1] For the reasons discussed below, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss is granted in part and denied in part. The claims against the Individual Defendants in their individual capacities are dismissed. The case will proceed against the Individual Defendants in their official capacities and the County. Defendants' request to dismiss Plaintiff's claims for punitive damages is denied.

         Background

         Plaintiff was incarcerated at PGCDC between December 2014 and April 2016 while awaiting trial and sentencing for criminal charges in the Prince George's County Circuit Court. Am. Compl. ¶ 21. Mary Lou McDonough is the Warden and Director of PGCDC; Corenne Labbe is the Deputy Director and head of the Bureau of Administration of PGCDC; W. Stephan Simmons is the Chief of the Program Services Division of PGCDC; and Amanda Welch is the Chief of the Inmate Services Section of PGCDC. Id. at ¶¶ 7-10. Plaintiff claims the County and the Individual Defendants prohibited him and other Muslim inmates from exercising their religion at PGCDC.[2]

         Specifically, Plaintiff allegedly sought permission to congregate for group prayers and to engage in study groups. Id. at ¶¶ 25-31. Plaintiff claims that he was told it was the policy of PGCDC to prohibit Muslim inmates from congregating for prayers or study group unless a volunteer imam from outside PGCDC was present to lead the services but that “no one from the volunteer community had volunteered to perform these services at the Detention Center.” Id. at ¶ 28. Plaintiff says that he volunteered to help PGCDC seek out imams from the local community that would be willing to visit PGCDC, but his requests were denied. Id. at ¶ 30. In addition to prayer services, Plaintiff alleges he and other Muslim inmates were denied special meals for holidays. Id. at ¶ 32. Plaintiff claims he was told that it was not the policy of the PGCDC to provide special meals to Muslim inmates. Id. Plaintiff maintains that other correctional institutions in Maryland allow congregation for prayer services and provide special meals for religious holidays. Id. at ¶ 35.

         Plaintiff further alleges Defendants provided programs, services and opportunities to Christian inmates, but “failed to undertake reasonable efforts to bring Muslim religious volunteers to the Detention Center.” Id. at ¶ 34. PGCDC contracted with a ministry to bring religious officials to perform Christian services and programs. Id. at ¶ 40. Christian inmates were permitted to congregate for religious services and engage in Bible study groups even when a religious official was not present. Id. at ¶ 41-42. They are also given special meals during Christmas and Easter. Id. at ¶ 43.

         Plaintiff asserts that “[a]ll of these policies, practices, and customs were formulated, designed, and implemented by and under the supervision of” the Individual Defendants, and that the Individual Defendants were “acting on behalf of Prince George's County.” Id. at ¶¶ 44, 50.

         Count I of Plaintiff's complaint alleges a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act against Defendant Prince George's County and the Individual Defendants in their official capacities. Id. at ¶¶ 51-59. Count II alleges a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment against Defendant Prince George's County and the Individual Defendants in their official and individual capacities. Id. at ¶¶ 60-68. Count III alleges a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment against Defendant Prince George's County and the Individual Defendants in their official and individual capacities. Id. at ¶¶ 69-77. Plaintiff seeks compensatory, nominal, punitive, and other money damages. Id. at ¶ 78.

         Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, contending that the official capacity claims should be dismissed in each count, the individual capacity claims should be dismissed in Counts II and III, and that the Individual Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity as to Counts II and III. ECF No. 72 at 2. Defendants also argue that Plaintiff's punitive damages claims must be dismissed. ECF No. 74 at 6.

         Standard of Review

         Plaintiff's claims are subject to dismissal if they “fail[] to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A pleading must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), and must state “a plausible claim for relief, ” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Rule 12(b)(6)'s purpose “is to test the sufficiency of a complaint and not to resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.” Presley v. City of Charlottesville, 464 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2006). The well pleaded facts as alleged in Plaintiff's complaint are accepted as true. See Aziz v. Alcolac, 658 F.3d 388, 390 (4th Cir. 2011). Factual allegations are construed “in the light most favorable to [the] plaintiff.” Adcock v. Freightliner LLC, 550 F.3d 369, 374 (4th Cir. 2008) (quoting Battlefield Builders, Inc. v. Swango, 743 F.2d 1060, 1062 (4th Cir. 1984)).

         Discussion

         Individual Capacity Claims

         Defendants move to dismiss the § 1983 individual capacity claims in Counts II and III against the Individual Defendants. ECF No. 72. Section 1983 provides liability for “[e]very person who, under color of [state law], subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” 42 U.S.C. § 1983. “‘Although § 1983 must be read against the background of tort liability that makes a man responsible for the natural consequences of his actions, liability will only lie where it is affirmatively shown that the official charged acted personally in the deprivation of the plaintiffs' rights.'” Wilcox v. Brown, 877 F.3d 161, 170 (4th Cir. 2017) (quoting Vinnedge v. Gibbs, 550 F.2d 926, 928 (4th Cir. 1977) (citation, alteration, and internal quotation marks omitted in original). “The doctrine of respondeat superior has no application under this section.” Id. Rather, § 1983 “require[s] proof of an affirmative causal connection between the official's acts or omissions and the alleged constitutional deprivation”). Id. (citing and quoting Swint v. City of Wadley, 51 F.3d 988, 999 (11th Cir. 1995)).

         For example, § 1983 liability based on personal involvement was found for a prison director and sheriff where the defendants “played key roles” in ensuring that the plaintiff remained in solitary confinement by “seeking and recommending approval by the Governor.” Williamson v. Stirling, 912 F.3d 154, 172-73 (4th Cir. 2018). In contrast, civil rights claims against a sheriff stemming from a foreclosure action were dismissed where the plaintiff failed to allege any specific facts regarding the sheriff's personal involvement. Proctor v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 289 F.Supp.3d 676, 690-91 (D. Md. 2018).

         Here, Plaintiff fails to adequately plead personal involvement of the Individual Defendants. Plaintiff repeatedly alleges that his requests for accommodation were communicated to and denied by Defendants' agents, “including Chaplain James Penn, Chaplain Filiberto Romero, Lieutenant Dixon, and various correctional officers in his housing units, including Corporals Montgomery, Dudley, Wallace, Hawkins, and Mothershead.” Am. Compl. ¶ 27; see also Id. at ¶¶ 28-33. In fact, Plaintiff does not allege any specific action or omission taken by the Individual Defendants. ...


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