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Sims v. Kansas Department of Corrections

United States District Court, D. Kansas

September 17, 2019

ERIC D. SIMS, Plaintiff,



         This matter comes before the Court on Defendants Kansas Department of Corrections (“KDOC”) and Joe Norwood's respective motions to dismiss. Additionally, the Court is prepared to rule on three motions filed by Plaintiff Eric Sims: a motion to stay the case, for leave to file a supplemental response, and to sever two claims. For the following reasons, the Court grants Defendant Kansas Department of Corrections' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 17) and Defendant Joe Norwood's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 18). And the Court denies Plaintiff Eric Sims' Motion to Stay and for Leave to File a Supplemental Response (Doc. 40), Motion for Leave to File a Supplemental Response (Doc. 45), and Motion to Sever (Doc. 48).

         I. Factual and Procedural Background [1]

         Sims has been an inmate in the custody of KDOC since 1993. During his incarceration, Sims became involved with Heritage Family Church's Kansas Apostolic Prison Ministry (“KAPM”) and developed a relationship with the church's pastor, Jonathan Dudley. Although Sims states that he converted to the Apostolic Faith approximately 20 years ago, Sims first informed KDOC, via a change of religion request form, that he was a member of the Apostolic Faith in 2008. The essential tenets of Sims' religious beliefs include participating in weekly worship services, taking communion, being baptized, and wearing long-sleeved clothing to promote modesty. Additionally, Sims' religious beliefs preclude him from worshiping with members of any other faith, including all Protestant denominations.

         Since at least 2016, Sims has made repeated requests that KDOC officially recognize the Apostolic Faith as its own distinct religion separate from Protestantism. 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 call-outs for members of the Apostolic Faith at every KDOC facility. Sims alleges that KDOC's lack of separate Apostolic services forces him to either worship with Protestants (a violation of his religious beliefs) or abstain from worshiping entirely (also a violation of his religious beliefs). Given this choice, Sims has refused to attend a single Protestant or Ecumenical service in the last 20 years.

         In addition to weekly call-outs, Sims has made other requests for religious accommodation. For example, Sims requested religiously sanctioned clothing in the form of long-sleeved shirts. Although KDOC approved his request, Sims takes issue with the length of time it took KDOC to do so: approximately three months. Sims also submitted a request for Pastor Dudley to use the prison's chapel for a baptism service; Sims did not seek to be baptized at this service but was requesting permission on behalf of 12 other Apostolic inmates. KDOC denied the request and stated that Apostolic inmates must have their baptisms performed by a Protestant pastor. Sims also alleges that he and two other Apostolic inmates were restricted from holding a Bible study during their free time even though inmates of other faiths were allowed to engage in religious study under similar circumstances. Finally, Sims ordered several Apostolic books and materials that KDOC's mailroom received but never distributed to him. In general, Sims alleges that KDOC officials either failed to respond to his requests for religious accommodation or provided incomplete responses.

         On May 5, 2018, Sims-in conjunction with Pastor Dudley and Heritage Family Church- sent a demand letter to KDOC outlining potential legal action and demanding the following concessions: that KDOC recognize the Apostolic faith as a discrete religion and allow Apostolic inmates at all KDOC facilities to hold separate weekly services, be baptized by an Apostolic minister, and wear long-sleeved shirts. Approximately two weeks after sending the demand letter, KDOC transferred Sims pursuant to the Kansas Interstate Compact statute to a Florida Department of Corrections (“FDOC”) facility in Orlando, Florida. According to Sims, KDOC officials provided several competing reasons for his transfer, including that Sims was transferred for “security” or “housing” reasons, that he had “compromised [prison] staff and volunteers, ” that he was “misleading legislators, ”[2] and that Sims filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance regarding wages paid to inmate workers.

         Sims, Heritage Family Church, and Pastor Dudley filed suit for injunctive relief against KDOC as well as 11 KDOC officials, including Joe Norwood, who at the time was KDOC's Secretary of Corrections. Heritage Family Church and Pastor Dudley have since voluntarily dismissed all claims against all defendants and are no longer parties in this lawsuit. Sims voluntarily dismissed his claims against every defendant except KDOC and Norwood. Sims' Complaint brings the following claims: (Count 1) Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) violation; (Counts 2-3) First Amendment Free Exercise, Free Speech, and Free Assembly violations; (Counts 4-5) Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection and Due Process violations; (Count 6) First Amendment retaliation; and (Counts 7-8) Kansas Constitution Free Exercise, Free Speech, and Free Assembly violations.

         Sims' request for injunctive relief is extraordinarily broad. The abridged version includes an order from the Court that KDOC return Sims to EDCF, that KDOC be prohibited in perpetuity from transferring Sims to a different facility, that KDOC officially recognize the Apostolic faith as a discrete religion, and that KDOC provide various accommodations to Apostolic inmates at all KDOC facilities.

         Shortly after filing this suit, Sims filed a motion for a preliminary injunction or temporary restraining order. The Court held a hearing on the motion and ultimately denied it.[3] The two defendants remaining in this lawsuit, KDOC and Norwood, filed motions to dismiss. When Sims filed his original responses to these motions, he was represented by counsel. After both motions were fully briefed, Sims' counsel withdrew from the case. Proceeding pro se, Sims filed a motion requesting the Court stay ruling on the dispositive motions and allow him to file a supplemental response; a month later, Sims filed another motion seeking leave to file a supplemental response and he attached a copy of his proposed pleading. Finally, Sims has filed a motion to sever Counts 5 and 6 from this case and for the Court to order the Clerk of the Court to docket a new case specifically on those claims.

         II. Legal Standard

         Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), a party may move for dismissal of “a claim for relief in any pleading” that fails “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Upon such motion, the Court must decide “whether the complaint contains ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.' ”[4] “[T]he mere metaphysical possibility that some plaintiff could prove some set of facts in support of the pleaded claims is insufficient;” rather, the pleading “must give the court reason to believe that this plaintiff has a reasonable likelihood of mustering factual support for these claims.”[5] The Court does not “weigh potential evidence that the parties might present at trial, ” but assesses whether the complaint “alone is legally sufficient to state a claim for which relief may be granted.”[6] In determining whether a claim is facially plausible, the Court must draw on its judicial experience and common sense.[7] All well-pleaded facts are assumed to be true and are construed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.[8] “Although plaintiff need not allege every element of [its] action in specific detail, [it] cannot rely on conclusory allegations.”[9]

         III. Analysis

         A. Sims' Motion to Stay and Leave to File a Supplemental Response

         Sims filed a motion asking the Court to stay its ruling on the two pending motions to dismiss to allow him the opportunity to supplement his Response. Before the Court ruled on this motion, Sims filed a second motion for leave to file a supplemental response or, in the alternative, to amend the responses filed by his withdrawn counsel; Sims attached his proposed pleading to his motion. Because Sims filed his proposed supplemental response before the Court issued its ruling on either motion to dismiss, Sims' Motion for a Stay is denied as moot.

         Sims argues that his supplemental response is necessary because his withdrawn counsel, Daniel Cortez, who filed the Responses to Norwood and KDOC's motions to dismiss, previously represented Corizon Health Services (“Corizon”), a company providing healthcare to KDOC inmates. Sims states that on August 27, 2018-before this lawsuit was filed-Cortez “informed [Sims] he could not pursue a claim against one of the defendants listed in his Complaint because of a conflict of interest with both himself and his firm regarding Corizon.”[10] Sims does not specify which defendant named in the complaint or what type of claim he wished to pursue that relates to Corizon. Sims also states that Cortez refused to conform the Complaint and his Response to “newly-discovered evidence introduced by Defendants” at the hearing for a preliminary injunction. Sims highlights evidence the Defendants presented at the hearing that Sims was transferred to Florida because of issues Sims had with Corizon's medical services.

         It was Defendants' position at the preliminary injunction hearing that Sims was not transferred in retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights but rather to ensure he could receive the medical services he needed. Defendants argued that Sims was unhappy with his medical care from Corizon and that Sims was transferred to Florida because the FDOC does not contract with Corizon. Evidently, Sims wishes to pursue a claim based on this new information- although the details of that claim have not been disclosed to the Court. Nevertheless, Sims' assertions, taken as true, do not support the necessity for filing a supplemental response to the pending motions to dismiss. By Sims' admission, he knew before this case was filed that Cortez could not pursue a claim against Corizon and Sims' Complaint pursues no such claim. If Sims wished to pursue a claim involving Corizon at that time, he could have sought different counsel or proceeded pro se. If Sims believes he has a new, alternative claim that involves Corizon based on the evidence introduced at the preliminary injunction hearing, the Court recognizes Cortez would not be able to pursue that claim on Sims' behalf. However, Sims has not demonstrated that Cortez was under a conflict of interest when he filed the unrelated responses to KDOC and Norwood's motions to dismiss.

         Nevertheless, the Court has fully reviewed and considered Sims' proposed supplemental response. Even upon full consideration of the arguments Sims makes in his proposed pleading, the Court concludes that Sims' supplemental response does not change the Court's analysis on either pending motion to dismiss. Because Sims' supplemental response does not supply the Court with reason to deny either motion to dismiss, granting the motion is futile. Therefore, the Court denies the motion.

         B. KDOC's Motion to Dismiss

         KDOC moves the Court to dismiss all claims against it for two reasons. First, KDOC argues that it lacks the capacity to be sued in federal court. Second, KDOC argues that Sims' claims against it are barred by the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution. Because the Court concludes that KDOC lacks the capacity to be sued, the Court need not consider KDOC's Eleventh Amendment immunity argument.[11]

         “A party's capacity to sue or be sued in federal court is determined by state law.”[12] “Under Kansas law, absent express statutory authority, legislatively-created government agencies lack the capacity to sue or be sued.”[13] The KDOC is a legislatively-created government agency, and Kansas law does not permit it to sue or be sued.[14] Accordingly, the Court holds that KDOC lacks the capacity to be sued and KDOC's Motion to Dismiss is granted.

         C. Secretary of Corrections' Motion to Dismiss

         Sims named KDOC's former Secretary of Corrections, Joe Norwood, as a defendant in both his individual and his official capacity. Sims' Complaint, however, seeks only injunctive relief; in these types of cases, “plaintiffs may sue individual-capacity defendants only for money damages and official-capacity defendants only for injunctive relief.”[15] Thus, because he is only seeking injunctive relief, Sims has not alleged a viable individual-capacity claim against Norwood. An official-capacity claim is essentially a claim against the entity rather than the individual.[16] The Court notes that Norwood is no longer the Secretary of Corrections for KDOC and the current Secretary of Corrections, Jeff Zmuda, is automatically substituted in Norwood's place on the official-capacity claims.[17] For clarity, because Zmuda is substituted for Norwood but the parties pleadings refer to Norwood, the Court will refer to Zmuda by title (“the Secretary”) rather than by name.

         The Secretary's Motion seeks dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) on the following grounds: mootness or lack of standing, Eleventh Amendment immunity, failure to exhaust administrative remedies, and failure to state a claim.

         1. Mootness or lack of standing

         The Secretary argues that Sims lacks standing to challenge the religious policies at KDOC or, alternatively, his requests are moot now that he has been transferred to Florida. Under Article III of the Constitution, federal courts have jurisdiction over only “cases” and “controversies.”[18]“One of the controlling elements in the definition of a case or controversy under Article III is standing.”[19] “The requisite elements of Article III standing are well established: ‘A plaintiff must allege personal injury fairly traceable to the defendant's allegedly unlawful conduct and likely to be redressed by the requested relief.' ”[20] As the Secretary correctly points out, Sims' request for injunctive relief is extraordinarily broad, seeking to vindicate the religious rights of all Apostolic inmates at every KDOC facility. The Court agrees that Sims lacks standing to challenge policies at KDOC facilities in which he is not incarcerated, as Sims does not suffer any personal injury from those policies.

         Additionally, the Secretary argues that even if Sims had a justiciable claim regarding the conditions of his confinement, that claim would be moot now that Sims has been transferred from EDCF to an FDOC facility. The Court recognizes that “[a] prisoner's release from or transfer out of a prison system generally moots claims for declaratory and injunctive relief for claims concerning conditions in that system”[21] and that Sims has not requested any injunctive relief regarding his treatment at the FDOC facility where he is currently held. Because Sims is no longer subject to the conditions of confinement at EDCF, the Court concludes that Sims lacks standing to challenge those conditions. However, Sims does challenge the legality of his transfer to FDOC, alleging that he was transferred in retaliation for exercising his protected First Amendment rights. The Court holds that Sims does have standing to bring his First Amendment retaliation claim and that this claim was not rendered moot by his transfer to FDOC.

         2. Eleventh Amendment immunity

         Eleventh Amendment immunity, if effectively asserted, strips the Court of subject matter jurisdiction.[22] Under the Eleventh Amendment, “states may not be sued in federal court unless they consent to it in unequivocal terms or unless Congress, pursuant to a valid exercise of power, unequivocally expresses its intent to abrogate the immunity.”[23] Furthermore, this immunity applies to suits against state agencies as well as state officials acting in their official capacities.[24]Under the well-known Ex parte Young doctrine, however, “the Eleventh Amendment does not bar suit against state officials in their official capacities if it seeks prospective relief for the officials' ongoing violation of federal law.”[25] To come within the Ex parte Young exception, “a court need only conduct a straightforward inquiry into whether the complaint alleges an ongoing violation of federal law and seeks relief properly characterized as prospective.”[26] From the Court's perspective, the relevant question is therefore whether Sims' ...

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