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Watford v. Ellis

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

September 16, 2019

MARLON WATFORD, Plaintiff,
v.
KELLIE ELLIS, BRAD BRAMLETT, TONYA KNUST, and LACY REAMS, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Nancy J. Rosenstengel Chief U.S. District Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on the Report and Recommendation of Magistrate Judge Gilbert C. Sison (Doc. 65), which recommends the undersigned grant the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendants Kellie Ellis, Brad Bramlett, Tonya Knust, and Lacy Reams (Doc. 48).[1] Plaintiff Marlon Watford timely filed an objection to the Report and Recommendation (Doc. 66). For the reasons set forth below, the Court adopts the Report and Recommendation and grants Defendants' motion for summary judgment.

         Background

         Plaintiff Marlon Watford is an inmate confined in the Illinois Department of Corrections. Marlon is a member of the Al-Islam faith, a tenet of which is the belief that his body is “a gift from his Lord to hold in trust during this life.” (Doc. 2 at p. 7; Doc. 49-1 at p. 19-25). Watford alleges in his amended complaint that he “has a spiritual obligation to maintain his body and keep it free from strains.” (Id.). At the same time, Watford has H. Pylori[2] and irritable bowel syndrome, resulting in a need to frequently use the bathroom (Id.).

         On August 23, 2013, Watford had a call pass to attend the law library for an hour and a half (Doc. 49-1 at p. 21). Before going to the library, Watford and other inmates were placed in a bullpen area for about 45 minutes (Id.). Once the inmates arrived in the law library, they were given an assigned seat and were not allowed to get up (Id. at p. 23). Watford testified that inmates were not allowed to leave the law library to use the bathroom (Id. at pp. 24-25).

         About 15 minutes after entering the law library, Watford felt the urge to use the bathroom and had a burning sensation in his side and kidney area (Id. at 29). He also had spasms in his bowels and pain in his stomach (Id.). Watford testified that he told Defendant Kellie Ellis that he needed to use the restroom, but she told him “no, you just got here.” (Id. at p. 30). Defendants Brad Bramlett and Tonya Knust, assistant paralegals, also told him no (Id.). Watford then “just sat there and suffered” until he could return to his cell (Id. at pp. 32-33).

         Defendant Ellis attested that prior to about May or June 2013, inmates could freely walk around the library and use the restroom without permission (Doc. 49-2). The policy changed, however, when inmates were found destroying and defacing law books and library equipment (Id.). Inmates could no longer use the bathroom because officers could not maintain sight of inmates using the restroom, creating a security issue (Id.). Inmates also had fought and committed assaults or security threat group violations on other inmates in the restroom (Id.). Accordingly, the administration at Menard deemed the bathroom in the law library closed until the area could be remodeled (Id.). She further attested that only one correctional officer was assigned to the library at a time and that she could not leave the law library to escort an inmate out of the building (Id.). Instead, if an inmate needed to use the restroom, she would call the school sergeant who would have an officer escort the inmate back to his cell house (Id.). She also attested that Watford never told her he had irritable bowel syndrome or that it was against his religion not to use the restroom immediately (Id.).

         On May 14, 2015, Watford filed a lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and on May 25, 2016, the claim in this case was severed into its own matter (Doc. 1). After preliminary review of the amended complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, the Court permitted Watford to proceed on his claim that Defendants violated his First Amendment right to freely exercise his religious beliefs by denying him access to the bathroom while in the law library.

         On April 16, 2018, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment arguing Defendants lacked the requisite personal involvement to be held liable under § 1983 (Doc. 49). It was undisputed that Defendant Reams was not present in the law library on August 23, 2013. Furthermore, Defendants Bramlett and Knust were working as assistant paralegals, were not members of the security staff, and they had no discretion to allow Watford to use the restroom or leave the law library. Finally, Defendant Ellis had no discretion to decide when an inmate could be taken back to their cell house to use the restroom. Defendants further argued that the prison regulation regarding the law library bathroom was reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest and that they were entitled to qualified immunity.

         On August 28, 2019, Judge Sison entered the Report and Recommendation currently before the Court (Doc. 65). Judge Sison first found that summary judgment should be granted to Defendant Reams, as there is no dispute that she was not present in the law library on August 23, 2013, and there is no evidence of her personal involvement in any alleged constitutional violation.

         Judge Sison next found that while the prison's restroom-use policy was implemented to promote security and inmate safety, there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Watford was provided with alternative means to exercise his religious beliefs, including that he remain free from physical strain. Specifically, Judge Sison noted that while Defendant Ellis attested that she would call the school sergeant to contact a correctional officer if an inmate needed to use the restroom, Watford testified that she did not follow that policy and instead told him he could not use the restroom. He also testified that he tried to ask Defendants Bramlett and Knust for permission to use the bathroom, but these Defendants deny being involved in any requests for restroom access.

         Despite these disputed issues of material fact, Judge Sison found that Defendants were entitled to summary judgment under the doctrine of qualified immunity. Judge Sison found there is no evidence that Defendants knew denying Watford access to the restroom would result in a strain on his body that would violate his religious beliefs. While Watford argues there is a clearly established constitutional requirement not to deprive inmates of their First Amendment rights to practice their religion, Judge Sison noted that there is no particularized, clearly established right that would allow a reasonable person to know, or even to suspect, that denying Watford access to the restroom during his time in the law library would violate such a right.

         Watford objected to the Report and Recommendation on September 11, 2019 (Doc. 66). His objection is brief; he argues only that there is a clearly established constitutional requirement not to deprive inmates of their First Amendment rights to practice religion, which includes the ability to keep one's body free from strains pursuant to his religious beliefs. Because Defendants failed to provide an alternative, Watford asserts his ability to practice his religion was unreasonably burdened and qualified immunity is inappropriate.

         Legal ...


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