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Singh v. McConville

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 18, 2016

KANWAR BIR SINGH, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
JAMES C. MCCONVILLE, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          HON. BERYL A. HOWELL CHIEF JUDGE

         The plaintiffs Kanwar Bir Singh, Harpal Singh, and minor A.S.G., who are all observant Sikhs, bring this lawsuit against the United States Department of Defense (“DOD”), the United States Department of the Army (“Army”), and three military officials-James C. McConville, Deputy Chief of Staff, G-1, of the Army; Ashton B. Carter, Secretary of Defense; and Patrick J. Murphy, Acting Secretary of the Army-alleging various violations of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb, et seq., and the First and Fifth Amendments of the United States Constitution pertaining to the Army’s allegedly unlawful grooming and personal appearance regulations and discriminatory treatment with respect to each of their requests for religious accommodations. See generally Compl., ECF No. 1. Contemporaneously with the Complaint, the plaintiffs filed a Notice of Related Case, ECF No. 2, indicating that this case “involves common issues of fact” with Singh v. Carter, No. 16-cv-399 (BAH), an earlier-filed case assigned to the undersigned Chief Judge. As a result, this case was also assigned to the undersigned Chief Judge, pursuant to Local Civil Rule 40.5(c)(1). See LCvR 40.5(c)(1) (“Where the existence of a related case in this Court is noted at the time the indictment is returned or the complaint is filed, the Clerk shall assign the new case to the judge to whom the oldest related case is assigned.”). Pending before the Court are (1) the defendants’ objection to the related-case designation, pursuant to Local Civil Rule 40.5(c)(3) (“Defs.’ Obj.”), ECF No. 37; (2) the plaintiffs’ Motion to Consolidate this case with Singh v. Carter (“Pls.’ Mot. Consolidate”), ECF No. 27; and (3) the plaintiffs’ Application for Preliminary Injunction (“Pls.’ Mot. Prelim. Inj.”), ECF No. 9. The defendants’ objection to the related-case designation is addressed first before turning to the plaintiffs’ motions.[1]

         I. RELATED-CASE DESIGNATION

         Generally, all new cases filed in this courthouse are randomly assigned, see LCvR 40.3(a), in order “to ensure greater public confidence in the integrity of the judicial process,” “guarantee[] fair and equal distribution of cases to all judges, avoid[] public perception or appearance of favoritism in assignments, and reduce[] opportunities for judge-shopping,” Tripp v. Exec. Office of the President, 196 F.R.D. 201, 202 (D.D.C. 2000) (Calendar Committee three judge panel). The local rules contain an exception, however, in the interest of judicial economy, for “related cases.” Id.; see LCvR 40.5; Doe v. Von Eschenbach, No. 06-cv-2131, 2007 WL 1655881, at *1 (D.D.C. June 7, 2007) (“In some cases, . . . the interests of judicial economy served by the related case rule . . . outweigh the fundamental interests served by the random assignment rule.”). “Civil . . . cases are deemed related when the earliest is still pending on the merits in the District Court and they” (1) “relate to common property,” (2) “involve common issues of fact,” (3) “grow out of the same event or transaction,” or (4) “involve the validity or infringement of the same patent.” LCvR 40.5(a)(3).

         When a party objects to a related case designation, “the matter shall be determined by the judge to whom the case is assigned.” LCvR 40.5(c)(3). If that judge “determines that the cases in question are not related, the judge may transfer the new case to the Calendar and Case Management Committee,” and the Committee either “shall cause the case to be reassigned at random,” or “may return the case to the transferring judge,” depending on its findings regarding whether good cause exists for the transfer. LCvR 40.5(c)(1).[2] The party requesting the related-case designation bears the burden of showing that the cases are related under Local Civil Rule 40.5. United States v. Volvo Constr. Equip. AB, 922 F. Supp. 2d 67, 68 (D.D.C. 2013); Autumn Journey Hospice, Inc. v. Sebelius, 753 F. Supp. 2d 135, 140 (D.D.C. 2010). Notably, a related-case inquiry is separate and distinct from an inquiry regarding case consolidation, which mechanism provides courts with broad discretionary authority to consolidate actions involving “a common question of law or fact.” See Fed. R. Civ. P. 42(a); Stewart v. O’Neill, 225 F. Supp. 2d 16, 19–21 (D.D.C. 2002).

         Here, it is undisputed that the earlier-filed case, Singh v. Carter, No. 16-cv-399, is still pending on the merits and the plaintiffs rely on the second factor in Local Civil Rule 40.5(a)(3), requiring that cases “involve common issues of fact,” LCvR 40.5(a)(3)(ii), as the basis for the cases’ relatedness. The defendants concede that “both cases involve followers of the Sikh faith who requested religious accommodations to deviate from the Army’s uniform and grooming standards” and that “[t]he complaints are based on alleged violations of the [RFRA],” as well as the same “Constitutional provisions.” Defs.’ Obj. at 2. Nonetheless, the defendants object to the “common issues of fact” basis for relatedness, arguing that “the similarities between the cases . . . are not sufficient to overcome the default rule favoring random assignment of cases.” Id. The defendants point to the “individualized” and “case-by-case” analysis required under RFRA and Army regulations governing religious accommodations and emphasize the factual differences between the plaintiffs. Id. at 2–3; see also Singh v. Carter, Case No. 16-cv-399, Mem. Op. (May 6, 2016) at 19–20, ECF No. 47 (discussing factual differences between plaintiffs).

         The defendants’ ignore, however, the common issues of fact in the two cases related to the defendants’ policies and actions. In Autumn Journey, the court overruled the defendant’s objection to the plaintiff’s related case designation for six separate actions in which a hospice care provider “challenge[d] the validity of [a] regulation” on the same grounds, namely, “whether the regulation impermissibly conflict[ed] with the underlying statute and, if so, what relief should be afforded to the plaintiff hospices.” 753 F. Supp. 2d at 140–41. Since “[e]ach case thus present[ed] identical issues for resolution,” the court reasoned that “there [was] substantial overlap in both the factual underpinning and the legal matters in dispute in each of these hospice cap cases . . . . such that judicial economy would be served by having these matters resolved by the same judge.” Id. at 140; cf. Boyd v. Farrin, No. 12-cv-1893, 2012 WL 6106415, at *1–2 (D.D.C. Dec. 10, 2012) (finding cases not properly deemed related where plaintiffs brought entirely different claims for relief).

         Similarly, in Assiniboine & Sioux Tribe of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation v. Norton, 211 F. Supp. 2d 157 (D.D.C. 2002), the court rejected the defendants’ objection to the related case designation in a case in which, like an earlier-filed case brought by individual Indians, the plaintiff Indian tribe “allege[d] that the federal government’s trustee-delegates . . . breached . . . their fiduciary duties” required by the 1994 Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act. Id. at 158, 160. The court noted that, in both cases, the Indian plaintiffs’ “‘ultimate goal’” was to get “an accounting of their funds held in trust by the United States” and explained that, in both cases, the court would “have to determine . . . whether the defendants [were] administering the[] leases in accordance with their fiduciary obligations” and whether the defendants were properly managing funds. Id. at 158–59 (citation omitted).

         As in Autumn Journey, the plaintiffs in both cases at issue here challenge the same Department of Defense and Army regulations governing requests for religious accommodations on the same grounds. For example, they challenge the regulatory process for obtaining religious accommodation, see Compl. ¶¶ 237–241, Case No. 16-cv-581 (“The process for obtaining an accommodation . . . is onerous.”); Compl. ¶¶ 122–27, Case No. 16-cv-399, ECF No. 1 (same), the neutrality and general applicability of the Army’s grooming and personal appearance regulations, see Compl. ¶¶ 275, 278, Case No. 16-cv-581; Compl. ¶¶ 161, 163, Case No. 16-cv-399, and allege that the regulations constitute content and viewpoint discrimination, see Compl. ¶¶ 301–02, Case No. 16-cv-581; Compl. ¶¶ 188–89, Case No. 16-cv-399. The plaintiffs in both cases also challenge the validity of defendants’ “interest in excluding Sikhs from the U.S. military,” Compl. ¶ 263, Case No. 16-cv-581; Compl. ¶ 148, Case No. 16-cv-399; and allege that the defendants have intentionally discriminated against them based on their requests for religious accommodations, see Compl. ¶¶ 22–36, No. 16-cv-581; Compl. ¶¶ 98–115, No. 16-cv-399. Thus, the Court will be required to make similar factual determinations in both cases related to the defendants’ process for issuing religious accommodations, the defendants’ justifications for their regulations and policies, and the defendants’ discriminatory conduct and/or intent, if any. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 676 (2009) (“Where the claim is invidious discrimination in contravention of the First and Fifth Amendments, our decisions make clear that the plaintiff must plead and prove that the defendant acted with discriminatory purpose.”); see also Pls.’ Reply Defs.’ Objection Pls.’ Notice Related Case at 2, ECF No. 41 (“Each Plaintiff has experienced discrimination from the Army as a result of the Army’s policies and practices, and each Plaintiff’s accommodation is under the review of the same decision makers within the Army, who are evaluating the same stated military interests.”); id. at 3 (“Both cases challenge the Army’s processing of Plaintiffs’ accommodations [and] . . . . the scope of the temporary accommodations that were granted . . . .”).

         Additionally, as in Assiniboine, the plaintiffs in both cases seek the same relief, including “a permanent injunction (1) enjoining Defendants from enforcing the Army’s grooming and personal appearance regulations against Plaintiffs insofar as they require Plaintiffs to cut their hair, shave their beards, or cease wearing their turbans; (2) ordering Defendants to permit Plaintiffs to continue serving in the Army without regard to their unshorn hair, beards and turbans; and (3) ordering that the injunction will apply to all Army posts that Plaintiffs will hold in the future, unless the Army makes an individualized showing of a compelling governmental interest that cannot be satisfied by less restrictive means.” Compl. at 53 ¶ b, Case No. 16-cv-581; see Compl. at 34 ¶ d, Case No. 16-cv-399 (same). The fact that the Court will conduct an individual analysis with respect to each plaintiff to determine whether each plaintiff is entitled to the relief he seeks does not obviate the need for factual determinations related to the defendants’ regulations and policies, and their administration of those regulations and policies, which are common to both cases.

         Accordingly, the Court finds that “[i]t would waste judicial resources . . . to have another court address the[] same factual issues,” Assiniboine, 211 F. Supp. 2d at 159, and the cases were properly designated as related. The instant case will not be referred to the Calendar Committee for reassignment.

         II. MOTION FOR CONSOLIDATION

         The same motion for case consolidation that the plaintiffs have filed in this case was filed by the plaintiff in Singh v. Carter. The Court denied the motion, after discussing it in detail, in a recent Memorandum Opinion issued in that case. See Mem. Op. (May 6, 2016) at 18–20, Case No. 16-cv-399. For the same reasons outlined in that Memorandum Opinion, the plaintiffs’ motion to consolidate this case with Singh v. Carter is denied.

         III. MOTION FOR ...


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