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Heritage Family Church, Inc. v. Kansas Department of Corrections

United States District Court, D. Kansas

November 20, 2018




         Heritage Family Church, Inc. (“Heritage Family Church”), Jonathan Dudley, and Eric Sims filed suit against the Kansas Department of Corrections (“KDOC”) seeking various forms of injunctive relief related to Sims' exercise of his religious beliefs and Heritage Family Church's prison ministry. This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiffs' motion for a temporary restraining order and/or a preliminary injunction. Sims is the only plaintiff with claims relevant to this motion, and he alleges that KDOC substantially burdened his religious beliefs in violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”). Sims also alleges that KDOC deprived him of his due process rights and retaliated against him for exercising his First Amendment rights by transferring him to a Florida prison. For the following reasons, Sims is not entitled to relief at this stage of the litigation. Plaintiffs' Motion for Temporary Restraining Order and/or Preliminary Injunction (Doc. 6) is therefore denied.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Eric Sims has been an inmate in the custody of KDOC since 1993. During his incarceration, Sims became involved with Heritage Family Church's Apostolic prison ministry and developed a relationship with the church's pastor, Jonathan Dudley. In 2008, Sims informed KDOC, via a change of religion request form, that he was now a member of the Apostolic Faith. Since at least 2016, Sims has made repeated requests that KDOC officially recognize the Apostolic Faith as its own distinct religion. Sims alleges that KDOC allows 17 different religions to hold weekly group worship services-what the parties refer to as “call-outs”-but does not offer any call-outs for members of the Apostolic Faith. Sims states that KDOC's lack of separate, Apostolic services forces him to either worship with Protestants, which would be in violation of his religious beliefs, or abstain from worshiping.

         According to KDOC's Director of Mentoring, Religious and Volunteer Services, Gloria Geither, KDOC does not officially “recognize” any religion, but rather accommodates inmates' specific religious needs. Sims has identified at least five ways in which KDOC's failure to officially recognize the Apostolic Faith has prevented Apostolic inmates from exercising their religious beliefs. Sims claims that the lack of recognition inhibits access to regular group worship services, bible studies, baptisms, religious texts, and Apostolic-approved clothing.

         Before KDOC will authorize a religious call-out, there must be at least two inmates of that religion seeking the accommodation. Sims-as well as Pastor Dudley-have made numerous requests for Apostolic call-outs to be held at all KDOC facilities. Although Sims' motion refers to other inmates of the Apostolic Faith, he has provided no evidence of any other inmate of the Apostolic Faith requesting a call-out. In December 2017, Sims delivered a request for Apostolic call-outs on behalf of four other inmates; but none of the four inmates made a request themselves, and each of the four inmates had a religious affiliation other than Apostolic. Sims was afforded a pastoral visit with Pastor Dudley, and there is no evidence he ever requested and was denied the opportunity to individually meet with a pastor.[1]

         Sims offers other examples of his religious rights being substantially burdened. In December 2016, Sims submitted a formal request to KDOC to allow Pastor Dudley to perform baptisms for other Apostolic inmates at the KDOC chapel, and Sims stated that he encouraged these other inmates to submit a request for baptism services. Sims did not then-or at any other time-request to be baptized himself. Sims also made a formal request to wear long-sleeved shirts in accordance with his religious beliefs on modesty; this request was granted, albeit with a delay of several months. Sims also alleges that on March 19, 2018, KDOC officials at the El Dorado Correctional Facility (“EDCF”) took receipt of a FedEx package containing religious texts addressed to Sims. Sims never received this package. On May 15, 2018, he sent a written request to the EDCF mailroom inquiring into the status of his package, and he sent a follow-up inquiry three days after that. Sims was transferred to Florida within a week of making his request and evidently never received a response.

         Lastly, Sims stated in his affidavit that on March 23, 2017, he was participating in a bible study in his free time with two other inmates when a KDOC official advised him that he must discontinue the bible study or he would be given a Disciplinary Report for a violation of K.A.R. § 44-12-325(c). Sims stated that Pastor Dudley reached out to the prison administration regarding this event, and he was informed that inmates are not permitted to organize their own call-outs without formal approval from the Chaplain's office. Sims contends that the same prohibition was not applied to other groups.

         On May 20, 2018, KDOC transferred Sims to a Florida prison pursuant to the Kansas Interstate Compact statute. According to KDOC's Deputy Secretary for Facilities Management, Johnnie Goddard, he made the decision to transfer Sims to another state in January or February 2018. Goddard stated that he decided to make the transfer because of issues Sims had with KDOC's medical provider, Corizon. Goddard stated that Sims was not receiving the medical care that he needed, and that Sims “was trying to manipulate where he was going to live.” Goddard asked another KDOC employee, Liz Rice, to begin the transfer process; according to Rice, she eventually handed the project off to Doug Burris, the Interstate Compact Administrator. Burris stated that he was not involved in deciding that Sims should be transferred, but that it was his understanding that Sims had filed complaints against doctors employed by KDOC's health provider, Corizon. So, to avoid any further issues, he sought to transfer Sims to a state that did not contract with Corizon for its prison's medical services. It is KDOC's position that Sims was transferred because of these issues with Corizon.

         Sims tells a different story. He alleges that “Burris [uses] his power as Interstate Compact Coordinator to subject inmates who file grievances to involuntary inter-state transfers in an attempt to obstruct their ability to exhaust their administrative remedies and seek judicial review of colorable claims against KDOC policies, practices and/or procedures.” Sims stated that shortly after his arrival in Florida “it was discovered” that Burris authored a memo dated April 18, 2018, in which Burris provided four reasons for Sims' transfer. None of the reasons involved Sims' issues with Corizon. According to Sims, the Burris memo stated that Sims was transferred because he was “compromising” KDOC staff and volunteers, because he was communicating with KDOC volunteers and trying to get religious services for himself and other Apostolic inmates, because he was “misleading legislators, ”[2] and because he filed a complaint with the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”).[3]

         On September 14, 2018, Sims-along with Pastor Dudley and Heritage Family Church- filed this lawsuit, seeking extensive injunctive relief. Plaintiffs filed this motion for a temporary restraining order and/or a preliminary injunction on October 8, 2018. Sims, however, is the only Plaintiff with any claims relevant to this Motion. Sims requests that the Court order KDOC to return him to EDCF, to officially recognize the Apostolic Faith as a discrete religious group, and to hold weekly Apostolic call-outs at all KDOC facilities.[4] On October 29, 2018, the Court held a hearing on Plaintiffs' Motion.

         II. Legal Standard

         “A preliminary injunction is an extraordinary remedy that may only be awarded upon a clear showing that the movant is entitled to such relief.”[5] The legal standard for a preliminary injunction is well-established.

Under Rule 65 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a party seeking a preliminary injunction must show: (1) the movant is substantially likely to succeed on the merits; (2) the movant will suffer irreparable injury if the injunction is denied; (3) the movant's threatened injury outweighs the injury the opposing party will suffer under the injunction; and (4) the injunction would not be adverse to the public interest.[6]

         The parties here disagree about how much evidence Sims must produce to prevail under the first factor. Sims argues that if he demonstrates that the second, third, and fourth factors favor granting his motion, the requirement that he demonstrate a substantial likelihood of success on the merits is relaxed.[7] Although the Tenth Circuit has applied Sims' modified version of the preliminary injunction test in the past, the Tenth Circuit has more recently admonished-based on its interpretation of the Supreme Court's opinion in Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.[8]-that this modification is no longer good law.[9] Indeed, “[u]nder Winter's rationale, any modified test which relaxes one of the prongs for preliminary relief and thus deviates from the standard test is impermissible.”[10]

         Furthermore, even before the Supreme Court's opinion in Winter, the Tenth Circuit held that movants seeking a “historically disfavored preliminary injunction . . . are not entitled to rely on this Circuit's modified-likelihood-of-success-on-the-merits standard.”[11] To the contrary, when seeking a disfavored injunction, the movant has a heightened burden to show that the exigencies of the case support granting the motion.[12] “Three types of preliminary injunctions are specifically disfavored: (1) preliminary injunctions that alter the status quo; (2) mandatory preliminary injunctions; and (3) preliminary injunctions that afford the movant all the relief that it could recover at the conclusion of a full trial on the merits.”[13]

         At first blush, it appears Sims is requesting a disfavored injunction because he is seeking to alter the status quo by asking the Court to order the defendants to transfer him from Florida to Kansas. But Tenth Circuit precedent informs this Court otherwise.[14] Sims' request is disfavored, however, because he is seeking a mandatory injunction. A mandatory injunction-in contrast to a prohibitory injunction-is “an injunction that requires the nonmoving party to take affirmative action . . . before a trial on the merits occurs.”[15] As a result, a mandatory injunction “places the issuing court in a position where it may have to provide ongoing supervision to assure the nonmovant is abiding by the injunction.”[16] An injunction to preserve the status quo is still a mandatory injunction if it requires affirmative action on the part of the nonmovant.[17]

         Here, Sims' request, if granted, would require affirmative action on the part of KDOC: a transfer of Sims back to a facility in Kansas. This type of mandatory injunction is disfavored, and Sims is thus required to meet the heightened burden of proof that accompanies all disfavored injunctions.[18]

         III. Analysis

         Sims' request for a preliminary injunction is based on three types of claims: (1) a free exercise and RLUIPA claim, (2) a due process claim, and (3) a First Amendment retaliation claim. Sims has the burden to demonstrate that each of the four factors in the preliminary injunction test weighs in his favor. Based on the evidence Sims has presented to the Court, he has failed to demonstrate a substantial likelihood that he will prevail on the merits under any of his three claims. Because Sims cannot satisfy his burden under the first factor of the preliminary injunction test on any claim, the Court makes no ruling on the other three factors. Accordingly, the Court concludes that Sims is not entitled to the extraordinary remedy of a disfavored preliminary injunction.

         A. Free Exercise and RLUIPA

         It is fundamental that to succeed on a free exercise or RLUIPA claim, a prisoner must prove that the government substantially burdened a sincerely held religious belief.[19] The prisoner must connect “the allegedly unconstitutional conditions with his own experience in the prison, or indicate how the conditions caused him injury.”[20] Importantly, a prisoner can only bring a claim to vindicate his own constitutional rights, and any attempt to raise a constitutional claim on behalf of other inmates should be dismissed for lack of standing.[21]

         In total, Sims identifies five ways in which KDOC's failure to officially recognize the Apostolic Faith substantially burdened his religious beliefs. Sims argues that non-recognition inhibits inmates of the Apostolic Faith from accessing: (1) Apostolic worship services, (2) baptism services, (3) Apostolic sanctioned clothing, (4) religious texts, and (5) informal bible studies. KDOC's position is that it does not officially “recognize” any religion, but rather that it simply accommodates inmates' religious needs. Furthermore, KDOC argues that it has adequately accommodated Sims' religious beliefs.

         Sims asserts that his religious beliefs forbid him from worshipping with any group other than the Apostolic Faith, including all Protestant denominations, and the Court does not question the sincerity of that belief. It is KDOC's policy that to hold any group religious activity, two or more inmates identified with that religion must request to participate in that activity. Although Sims refers to “other inmates” of the Apostolic Faith in his motion-even indicating that more inmates will be added as plaintiffs to this suit-he has provided scant evidence that any other Apostolic inmates have requested religious call-outs.[22] Indeed, at the October 29 hearing, Sims' counsel conceded that he had no evidence that any inmates of the Apostolic Faith other than Sims requested and were denied an Apostolic call-out. Simply put, without a group of Apostolic inmates to join, Sims is not substantially likely to succeed on a claim that he was denied group worship services with other inmates.

         Sims' next two arguments regarding long-sleeved clothing and baptism appear to lack merit. KDOC approved Sims' request to wear long-sleeved shirts. Although it took several months for KDOC to approve this request, there is no evidence that this was an atypical length of time; and even if KDOC's response was untimely, this is unlikely to form the basis of a First Amendment or RLUIPA violation.[23] Additionally, Sims-by his own admission-never requested to be baptized during his time in KDOC custody. Sims did provide some evidence that other inmates requested and were denied baptism services, but Sims only has standing to address a violation of his constitutional rights. None of the other inmates who were allegedly denied baptism services are parties to this lawsuit, and any violation of these other inmates' religious beliefs cannot form the basis for a First Amendment or RLUIPA claim by Sims.

         Next, Sims alleges that he was denied access to religious texts. Sims did not discuss the deprivation of religious texts in this Motion, nor could his counsel identify the evidence for this claim at the motion hearing. KDOC's counsel was unaware of this alleged deprivation. Upon review of Sims' attachments, the Court notes that Sims stated in his affidavit that on March 19, 2018, KDOC officials at EDCF took receipt of a FedEx package containing religious texts that was addressed to Sims. Sims never received his package, and he sent a written request to the EDCF mailroom inquiring into the status of his materials on May 18, 2018; Sims sent a follow-up inquiry three days after that. Sims was transferred to Florida within a week of making his request, and there is no indication that he ever received a response to his inquiries.

         While denying access to religious texts certainly implicates the First Amendment and RLUIPA's religious protections, there is simply insufficient evidence to conclude that Sims is substantially likely to prevail on this claim. The reason Sims had not yet received these materials is unknown, and it is not clear whether KDOC decided to withhold these materials, or whether there is another explanation for a delay in Sims receiving them. But more importantly, there is no evidence that KDOC withheld these materials because they were Apostolic Faith materials or because the Apostolic Faith is not an “officially recognized” religion. Sims' motion for preliminary injunctive relief requests official recognition of the Apostolic Faith-it does not request access to religious texts. Without evidence that KDOC deprived Sims of religious texts because the Apostolic Faith is not an officially recognized ...

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