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Daywitt v. Volunteer Services Department

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

October 11, 2019

KENNETH DAYWITT, Jewish Liaison; and ROY HUGHES, Islamic Liaison, Plaintiffs,
VOLUNTEER SERVICES DEPARTMENT; CHRIS SELL; NICK LAMMI, and CHAD MESOJEDEC, in their official capacities and their individual capacities, Defendants.



         Plaintiffs Kenneth Daywitt and Roy Hughes are clients of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (“MSOP”). Daywitt practices orthodox Judaism; Hughes practices Islam. For some time leading up to the events at issue in this lawsuit, Daywitt and Hughes acted as the liaisons between their respective religious communities at MSOP and the staff at MSOP. In January 2019, however, MSOP altered its Spiritual Practices Policy to require that all religious liaisons attend therapeutic community meetings. Daywitt and Hughes refused to attend those meetings and were subsequently stripped of their roles as liaisons.[1] In this action, Daywitt and Hughes allege that their removal from the liaison positions violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb et seq.; the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq.; and 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

         Neither Daywitt nor Hughes paid the filing fee for this matter, instead applying for in forma pauperis (“IFP”) status. (See Dkt. Nos. 2, 3, & 5.) Those IFP applications are now before the Court and must be reviewed before any other action may be taken in this matter.

         After review, this Court concludes that Daywitt and Hughes qualify financially for IFP status. That said, an IFP application may be denied and an action may be dismissed when an IFP applicant has filed a complaint that fails to state a cause of action on which relief may be granted. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii); Atkinson v. Bohn, 91 F.3d 1127, 1128 (8th Cir. 1996) (per curiam); Carter v. Schafer, 273 Fed.Appx. 581, 582 (8th Cir. 2008) (per curiam) (“[C]ontrary to plaintiffs' arguments on appeal, the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e) apply to all persons proceeding IFP and are not limited to prisoner suits, and the provisions allow dismissal without service.”). In reviewing whether a complaint states a claim on which relief may be granted, this Court must accept as true all of the factual allegations in the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Aten, 511 F.3d at 820. Although the factual allegations in the complaint need not be detailed, they must be sufficient to “raise a right to relief above the speculative level . . . .” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). The complaint must “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Id. at 570. In assessing the sufficiency of the complaint, the court may disregard legal conclusions that are couched as factual allegations. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009). Pro se complaints are to be construed liberally, but they still must allege sufficient facts to support the claims advanced. See Stone v. Harry, 364 F.3d 912, 914 (8th Cir. 2004).

         Plaintiffs' claims under RFRA and RLUIPA are substantively identical and will therefore be considered in tandem. See Holt v. Hobbs, 135 S.Ct. 853, 860 (2015) (“RLUIPA . . . allows prisoners ‘to seek religious accommodations pursuant to the same standard as set forth in RFRA.'”) (quoting Gonzales v. O Centro Espírita Beneficente Uniõ do Vegetal, 546 U.S. 418, 436 (2006)). Under RLUIPA,

No government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution . . . even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person -
(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
(2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a). RLUIPA (and by extension RFRA) thus requires, as a threshold matter, that Daywitt and Hughes plausibly allege that MSOP officials have placed a substantial burden on their ability to exercise their religions. See Murphy v. Missouri Dep't of Corrections, 372 F.3d 979, 988 (8th Cir. 2004). The Eighth Circuit has explained that

[i]n order to be considered a “substantial” burden, the governmental action must significantly inhibit or constrain conduct or expression that manifests some central tenet of a person's individual religious beliefs; must meaningfully curtail a person's ability to express adherence to his or her faith; or must deny a person reasonable opportunities to engage in those activities that are fundamental to a person's religion.

Weir v. Nix, 114 F.3d 817, 820 (8th Cir. 1997) (quotations omitted).

         Even after taking all statements in the Complaint as true and drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of Daywitt and Hughes, the Complaint does not plausibly allege that Plaintiffs' ability to practice their religions has been substantially burdened. Neither Plaintiff alleges that the change in MSOP policy inhibits or constrains his ability to practice, adhere to, or engage in Judaism or Islam. Instead, Daywitt and Hughes allege that the change in MSOP policy inhibits their ability to act as liaisons. According to Daywitt and Hughes, as liaisons, they “are responsible to communicate to their religious group(s) any and all communication from the facility to their group” and “were elected by their religious groups as the go-between for administration and clients.” (Dkt. 1 ¶¶ 11-12.) However, acting as a liaison is alleged neither to be a “central tenet” nor an activity “fundamental” to the practice of either Plaintiff's faith. (See id.) For example, nothing about Daywitt's Judaism (at least insofar as is alleged in the Complaint) requires him, as a matter of faith, to act as an MSOP liaison. (See Id. ¶ 13 (acknowledging that other individuals besides Daywitt have previously acted as liaison for MSOP clients of Jewish faith).) The same can be said with respect to Hughes's practice of Islam. Similarly, the absence of a facility liaison for a particular faith is not alleged to preclude, inhibit, or deter MSOP clients from practicing that faith.[2] Because Daywitt and Hughes have failed to plausibly allege that the change in MSOP policy places a substantial burden on their religious exercise, their claims under RFRA and RLUIPA fail as a matter of law.

         The legal standard for constitutional free exercise claims brought pursuant to § 1983 - and the forms of relief available for violations of § 1983 - differs in some respects from those brought under RLUIPA and RFRA. See Patel v. U.S. Bureau of Prisons, 515 F.3d 807, 813 (8th Cir. 2008). But just as under RLUIPA and RFRA, Plaintiffs must establish that the governmental activity at issue places a substantial burden on their religious practice in order to state a claim arising under the Free Exercise Clause. Id. Again, no such substantial burden has been plausibly alleged in the Complaint. Any claims arising under the Free Exercise Clause therefore ultimately fail for the same reason that the RLUIPA and RFRA claims of Daywitt and Hughes fail.

         Finally, Daywitt and Hughes also present a claim under § 1983 that they classify as one for “negligence, ” but that might more accurately be categorized as a claim that their due process rights were violated by the change in MSOP policy.[3] (See Dkt. 1 ¶¶ 41-46.) Making out such a due process claim, however, would require Daywitt and Hughes to establish that they have a liberty interest in the liaison positions that they have been deprived of due to the change in MSOP policy. See, e.g., Wong v. Minnesota Dep't of Human Services, 820 F.3d 922, 935 (8th Cir. 2016). “A liberty interest may arise from the Constitution itself, by reason of guarantees implicit in the word ‘liberty,' or it may arise from an expectation or interest created by state laws or policies.” Saylor v. Nebraska, 812 F.3d 637, 646 (8th Cir. 2016) (quotation omitted). ‚ÄúState laws and regulations create a protectable liberty interest only when they (1) place substantive limitations on the exercise of official discretion; ...

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