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New York Federal District Court Allows Prisoner’s § 1983 Action to Proceed

by Derek Gilna

A New York state prisoner’s civil rights case proceeded to trial in federal district court after the judge denied the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s motion for summary judgment in part on March 15, 2018, while dismissing some of the plaintiff’s claims.

Michael Gonzalez had filed his pro se lawsuit in 2014, alleging that while confined in the Adirondack Correctional Facility’s Special Housing Unit (SHU), prison officials denied him the right to practice his Native American religious beliefs.

Gonzalez’s complaint alleged a First Amendment free exercise claim, an Eighth Amendment claim, an equal protection claim under the Fourteenth Amendment and a claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). After the district court had preliminarily dismissed most of the defendants named in the initial complaint, it appointed counsel for Gonzalez and discovery was reopened.

The remaining defendants then moved for summary judgment, arguing that Gonzalez had not exhausted his administrative remedies prior to raising his equal protection claim. The court rejected that argument, finding the defendants had received fair notice of Gonzalez’s claims that he had been denied the right to wear beads with religious significance, to build a religious shrine, to receive additional religious meals and to use matches or a lighter to burn offerings.

The district court noted that “a challenged prison regulation is judged under a reasonableness test less restrictive than that ordinarily applied: a regulation that burdens a protected right passes constitutional muster if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.” The court found that Gonzalez could build a religious shrine, but could not use matches or a lighter for safety reasons.

The district court also rejected the defendants’ qualified immunity argument, concluding it could not “say as a matter of law that it was objectively reasonable for defendants to believe that denying Gonzalez an accommodation afforded to Native Americans was constitutional,” and calling their qualified immunity defense a “lip-service argument.”

The case went to trial in September 2018, and the jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendants and against Gonzalez on September 25. Gonzalez was represented by attorney Noah A. Kinigstein. See: Gonzalez v. Morris, U.S.D.C. (N.D. NY), Case No. 9:14-cv-01438-BKS-DEP; 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42534. 

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Related legal case

Gonzalez v. Morris