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Wright v. Bibens

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

November 1, 2018

IAN WRIGHT, Plaintiff,
MICHAEL BIBENS, et al. Defendants.



         On November 16, 2017, the plaintiff, Ian Wright, a prisoner currently confined at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center (“Corrigan”) in Uncasville, Connecticut, filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against several Connecticut Department of Correction (“DOC”) officials. He claimed that the defendants violated his rights under the First and Eighth Amendments to the United States Constitution for denying him “common fare” vegetarian meals in accordance with his religious beliefs during a four-day period at Corrigan. Compl. (ECF No. 1). The Court initially dismissed the complaint without prejudice because the plaintiff failed to allege facts showing each defendant's personal involvement in the constitutional deprivations. Initial Review Order (ECF No. 13). The plaintiff thereafter filed an amended complaint with additional factual allegations. Am. Compl. (ECF No. 16). After reviewing the amended complaint, the Court permitted the plaintiff's First Amendment claim to proceed against one of the defendants, Food Service Supervisor William Jackson, in his individual capacity for damages. Ruling on Mot. to Reopen and Review of Am. Compl. (ECF No. 17). The Court dismissed all other claims. Id. The defendant answered the amended complaint on May 15, 2018. Answer (ECF No. 21).

         On July 3, 2018, the defendant filed the instant motion for summary judgment on the plaintiff's sole remaining claim. Mot. for Summ. J. (ECF No. 24); Mem. of Law in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. (“Def.'s Mem.”) (ECF No. 24-1). He argues that (1) the plaintiff's First Amendment free exercise of religion claim fails as a matter of law, (2) the plaintiff has failed to establish the defendant's personal involvement in any constitutional violation, and (3) he is entitled to qualified immunity. Mot. for Summ. J. The defendant supplemented his motion with his affidavit, copies of institutional polices regarding the food service at DOC facilities, and a Local Rule 56(a)1 Statement of Facts (ECF Nos. 24-2 - 24-5). The Court then ordered the plaintiff to respond to the defendant's motion with a written memorandum and a Local Rule 56(a)2 Statement of Facts. See Order No. 29.

         The plaintiff filed an opposition to defendant's motion on August 9, 2018 arguing that there are genuine issues of material fact with respect to his First Amendment claim and the defendant's personal involvement and that the defendant is not entitled to qualified immunity. Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. (ECF No. 30); Mem. of Law in Obj. to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. (“Pl.'s Mem.”) (ECF No. 30-1). He supplemented his opposition with several exhibits (ECF No. 30-2), including his own affidavit and documents related to his religious affiliation and diet necessities, and a “Statement of Disputed Material Issues” (ECF No. 30-3).

         Because the Court agrees with the defendant that the First Amendment claim fails on the summary judgment record, the Court will GRANT the motion for summary judgment.

         I. Standard of Review

         In a motion for summary judgment, the burden is on the moving party to establish that there are no genuine issues of material fact in dispute and that it is “entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is “material” if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); see also Dister v. Continental Group, Inc., 859 F.2d 1108, 1114 (2d Cir. 1988) (mere existence of alleged factual dispute will not defeat summary judgment motion). The moving party may satisfy this burden “by showing - that is pointing out to the district court - that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” PepsiCo, Inc. v. Coca-Cola Co., 315 F.3d 101, 105 (2d Cir. 2002) (per curium) (internal quotations omitted; citations omitted).

         When a motion for summary judgment is supported by documentary evidence and sworn affidavits and “demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, ” the nonmoving party must do more than vaguely assert the existence of some unspecified disputed material facts or “rely on conclusory allegations or unsubstantiated speculation.” Robinson v. Concentra Health Servs., Inc., 781 F.3d 42, 44 (2d Cir. 2015) (citation omitted). The nonmoving party “must come forward with specific evidence demonstrating the existence of a genuine dispute of material fact.” Id.; see also First Nat. Bank of Ariz. v. Cities Service Co., 391 U.S. 253, 289 (1968) (nonmoving party must submit sufficient evidence supporting factual dispute that will require factfinder to resolve differing versions of truth at trial).

         In reviewing the record, the Court must “construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and . . . draw all reasonable inferences in its favor.” Gary Friedrich Enters., L.L.C. v. Marvel Characters, Inc., 716 F.3d 302, 312 (2d Cir. 2013) (citation omitted).

         Where one party is proceeding pro se, the Court must read his papers liberally and interpret them “to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest.” Willey v. Kirkpatrick, 801 F.3d 51, 62 (2d Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Despite this liberal interpretation, however, “[u]nsupported allegations do not create a material issue of fact” and cannot overcome a properly supported motion for summary judgment. See Weinstock v. Columbia Univ., 224 F.3d 33, 41 (2d Cir. 2000), cert. denied, 540 U.S. 811 (2003).

         II. Factual Allegations

         The Court finds the following facts from the amended complaint, the defendant's Local Rule 56(a)1 Statement (“Def.'s Stmt.”) (ECF No. 24-5), the plaintiff's “Statement of Disputed Material Issues”[1] (“Pl.'s Stmt.”) (ECF No. 30-3), and the exhibits on record.

         The plaintiff was transferred from Cheshire Correctional Institution to Corrigan on September 22, 2017. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 1; Pl.'s Stmt. ¶ 1. The plaintiff is a member of the Rastafarian religion, which requires its practitioners to adhere to a vegetarian diet. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 2; Pl.'s Stmt. ¶ 2. Since entering DOC custody in 2000, the plaintiff has been approved to participate in the common fare meal program under DOC Administrative Directive 10.18. Pl.'s Stmt. ¶ 3; Pl.'s Ex. 7 (ECF No. 30-2 at 54). A common fare meal is defined as “a meatless meal intended to accommodate those inmates whose religious dietary needs cannot be met on the master menu.” Def.'s Ex. 1, Attach. B (ECF No. 24-2 at 16). In order to participate in the common fare meal program, an inmate must submit an application to the food service department at the facility in which he is housed. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 21. The Food Service Supervisor IIII, who is responsible for ensuring compliance with the common fare policy, then approves or denies the application. Id. at ¶¶ 22-24; Def.'s Ex. 1 (Jackson Aff.) ¶ 10; Def.'s Ex. 1, Attach. B. If approved, the inmate is then placed on the list to receive common fare meals. Def.'s Stmt. at ¶¶ 23-24. District Food Service Managers and the Director of Food Services also conduct reviews of the facility's common fare policy. Def.'s Ex. 1, Attach. B.

         From September 22 to September 27, the defendant worked as the Food Service Supervisor II at Corrigan. Def.'s Ex. 1 (Jackson Aff.) ¶ 4. His duties included monitoring and supervising inmates in the preparation of meals, food inspection, receiving orders from vendors, and maintaining inventory and cleanliness. Id. During those dates, the defendant worked from 10:30 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. and was not involved in the preparation or service of breakfast or lunch meal trays.[2]Id. at ¶ 16. If the defendant receives information that an inmate has requested a common fare dinner, his common practice is to check the facility records and verify whether that inmate is on the approved list of common fare meal recipients. Id. at ¶ 15. If not, the defendant would inform the inmate or custody official of the common fare application process. Id. As Food Service Supervisor ...

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