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Cooper v. True

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

November 2, 2017


          Kaitlyn Leeann Dennis, Gustafson Gluek PLLC counsel for plaintiff

          Ana H. Voss, Bahram Samie, and D. Gerald Wilhelm, Assistant United States Attorneys counsel for defendants


          Katherine Menendez United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter is now before the Court on the Defendant Warden William True's Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint. [Def.'s Mot., ECF No. 49.] Based on the Defendant's motion and supporting papers, Mr. Cooper's response, and the arguments presented at the September 5, 2017 hearing, the Court concludes that Mr. Cooper has failed to state a claim and the motion to dismiss should be granted.

         I. The Amended Complaint[1]

         Mr. Cooper is a federal inmate who was housed at the Federal Prison Camp in Duluth, Minnnesota (“FPC Duluth”), a minimum-security federal prison camp. [Am. Compl. ¶¶ 11-12, ECF No. 42.] He is an observant Jew, and the practice of his religion requires access to a Torah, a rabbi, and a minyan, the last of which is a quorum of ten adult Jewish men. [Id. ¶¶ 2, 11, 18, 19.] Mr. Cooper alleges that in 2016, a rabbi visited FPC Duluth only once for the Jewish holiday of Purim, and that the prison failed to provide a Torah. [Id. ¶ 28.] Because FPC Duluth does not have a sufficient population of observant adult Jewish men, no minyan could be convened while Mr. Cooper was confined there. Mr. Cooper requested that he be transferred to another facility with a Jewish population sufficient to form a minyan. [See Id. ¶¶ 24, 29; id. ¶¶ 31-39 (describing plaintiff's efforts to obtain a transfer).]

         Warden True was formerly the Warden at FPC Duluth and he held that position at the time when Mr. Cooper arrived there in January 2016. [Am. Compl. ¶¶ 13, 25.] Mr. Cooper quickly informed Warden True that he was unable to practice his faith without a rabbi, a Torah, and a minyan. In response, Warden True informed Mr. Cooper that he would have to wait eighteen months before requesting a transfer. [Id. ¶ 25; see also Id. ¶ 34.] Despite having told Mr. Cooper that he would need to wait eighteen months to request a transfer, after Mr. Cooper began officially pursuing administrative remedies relating to the matter, Warden True submitted a transfer request on his behalf on August 11, 2016. [Id. ¶¶ 34-35.] The transfer request recommended that Mr. Cooper be transferred to a facility where he “could better participate in his faith.” [Id. ¶ 35.] In the transfer request, Warden True did not mention that Mr. Cooper's religious practice required a rabbi, a Torah, and a minyan despite Mr. Cooper telling him that all three were necessary for him to practice is faith. [Id. ¶ 36.] The transfer request was eventually denied.

         After Warden True made the transfer request on Mr. Cooper's behalf, his time as warden of FPC Duluth ended. The new Warden, identified as “M. Rios, ” also submitted a transfer request for Mr. Cooper on January 5, 2017, and specifically referenced the need for a Jewish population sufficient to form a minyan. [Am. Compl. ¶ 37.] This request was denied at various levels of the Bureau of Prisons' administrative appeal process. [Id. ¶¶ 38-39.]

         Based on these allegations, in Count I of the Amended Complaint Mr. Cooper asserts a Bivens[2] claim against Warden True for violation of his First Amendment rights under the Free Exercise Clause. [Am. Compl. ¶¶ 40-46.] Mr. Cooper claims that Warden True's actions constitute an unreasonable restriction on his right to exercise his religion, that Warden True knew or should have known that such conduct violated his constitutional rights, and that he suffered damages as a direct and proximate result of Warden True's actions. [Id.]

         In Count II, Mr. Cooper asserts a claim against Warden True under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”). [Am. Compl. ¶¶ 47-53.] Mr. Cooper asserts that: (1) Warden True imposed a substantial burden on his ability to exercise his religion by keeping him housed at a facility without access to a rabbi, a Torah, and minyan; and (2) keeping him at FPC Duluth was not the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest. [Id. ¶ 49.] He claims that Warden True submitted the August 11th transfer request on his behalf knowing that it contained a grossly inadequate explanation of the reasons a transfer was required, making Warden True liable in both his individual and official capacities. [Id. ¶ 51.]

         In the Amended Complaint, Mr. True requested both damages and an injunction requiring his transfer to a facility where a rabbi, a Torah, and a minyan population were available. [Am. Compl., Prayer for Relief ¶¶ c-d.] Mr. Cooper is no longer housed at FPC Duluth. [Pl.'s Resp. at 2 n.1, ECF No. 60.] Now, Mr. Cooper is located at a United States Penitentiary facility that is “capable of providing the fundamental religious resources [Mr. Cooper] lacked access to in his 19-month tenure at FPC Duluth.” [Id.] Given this development, and in light of the parties' stipulation for dismissal of a number of other defendants, the remaining issues in this case are limited to the availability of damages for Warden True's alleged violation of Mr. Cooper's First Amendment rights and the RFRA.

         II. Discussion

         Warden True argues that Mr. Cooper has failed to state a claim against him in Count I of the Amended Complaint because there is no Bivens remedy for alleged violations of the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause. [Def.'s Mem. at 13-19, ECF No. 51.] He further argues that in Count II, Mr. Cooper has failed to state a claim under RFRA because the statute does not permit the recovery of damages from a government official sued in his individual capacity. [Def.'s Mem. at 19-28.] Finally, Warden True contends that he is entitled to qualified immunity on Mr. Cooper's claims. [Id. at 28-30; Def.'s Reply at 8-9, ECF No. 61.]

         To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. v. Twombly, 500 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). This standard does not require the inclusion of “detailed factual allegations” in a pleading, but the complaint must contain facts with enough specificity “to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Id. at 555. “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, ” are not sufficient. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). In applying this standard, the Court must assume the facts in the complaint to be true and must construe all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Morton v. Becker, 793 F.2d 185, 187 (8th Cir. 1986). But the Court need not accept as true any ...

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