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Wofford v. Unknown Austin

United States District Court, W.D. Michigan

October 27, 2016

KEHINDE WOFFORD, Plaintiff,
v.
UNKNOWN AUSTIN et al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          Paul L. Maloney United States District Judge

         This is a civil rights action brought by a state prisoner pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Court has granted Plaintiff leave to proceed in forma pauperis. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Pub. L. No. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321 (1996), the Court is required to dismiss any prisoner action brought under federal law if the complaint is frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2), 1915A; 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c). The Court must read Plaintiff's pro se complaint indulgently, see Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972), and accept Plaintiff's allegations as true, unless they are clearly irrational or wholly incredible. Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 33 (1992). Applying these standards, Plaintiff's action will be dismissed for failure to state a claim.

         Factual Allegations

         Plaintiff KehindeWofford presently is incarcerated with the Michigan Department of Corrections at the Muskegon Correctional Facility, though the actions about which he complains occurred while he was housed at the Oaks Correctional Facility (ECF). He sues Correctional Officers (unknown) Austin and (unknown) Iverson.

         Plaintiff alleges that he is a devout Muslim in the Nation of Islam. On July 3, 2016, Plaintiff was provided his Ramadan meal to break his fast. Plaintiff contends that the meal “was in disarray and cross-contaminated and haram (forbidden) to consume by [P]laintiff's sincerely held religious beliefs.” (Compl., ECF No. 1, PageID.3.) Plaintiff brought his meal to Defendant Austin and showed Austin the spilled food. Austin laughed at Plaintiff and said, “[J]ust eat the damn meal[.]” Plaintiff refused to eat the main meal. Austin called Defendant Iverson from the food service department. Iverson stated, “I'm not going to give you another bag so eat the one you have or []I'm going to write you a disobeying a direct misconduct.” (Id.) Plaintiff explained that consuming the meal would violate his beliefs. Both Defendants allegedly laughed and told Plaintiff, “You shouldn't have decided to fast or do Ramadan; maybe next time you'll think twice before fasting.” (Id.) Plaintiff asked Defendants why they were punishing him for observing Ramadan and being a Muslim. Austin responded, “I didn't tell you to become a [M]uslim Wofford.” (Id.) Defendants also yelled at Plaintiff, advising him to “become a Christian or anything besides a [M]uslim because [P]laintiff would be less of a target.” (Id.) Later that day, Correctional Officer Lee provided Plaintiff a complaint form against food service, which Plaintiff completed and returned to Lee. Plaintiff also filed a grievance the following day against both Defendants.

         Plaintiff alleges that, as a result of Defendants' actions, his connection with Allah was broken and he was prevented from successfully completing Ramadan, because the main purpose of Ramadan is peace and requires abstaining from quarreling. He contends that Defendants' actions violated the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000(a)(1)(b). Plaintiff also alleges that Defendants' treatment of him as a Muslim was dissimilar to their treatment of prisoners practicing other religions, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

         Discussion

         I. Failure to state a claim A complaint may be dismissed for failure to state a claim if it fails “‘to give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). While a complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's allegations must include more than labels and conclusions. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (“Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.”). The court must determine whether the complaint contains “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. Although the plausibility standard is not equivalent to a “‘probability requirement, ' . . . it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged - but it has not ‘show[n]' - that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)); see also Hill v. Lappin, 630 F.3d 468, 470-71 (6th Cir. 2010) (holding that the Twombly/Iqbal plausibility standard applies to dismissals of prisoner cases on initial review under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915A(b)(1) and 1915(e)(2)(B)(I)).

         To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege the violation of a right secured by the federal Constitution or laws and must show that the deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); Dominguez v. Corr. Med. Servs., 555 F.3d 543, 549 (6th Cir. 2009). Because § 1983 is a method for vindicating federal rights, not a source of substantive rights itself, the first step in an action under § 1983 is to identify the specific constitutional right allegedly infringed. Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 271 (1994).

         A. First Amendment & RLUIPA

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendants violated the First Amendment and RLUIPA by refusing to provide Plaintiff with a replacement meal when his Ramadan meal was cross-contaminated by spillage from one part of the meal onto another. He also alleges that Defendants violated his rights under First Amendment and RLUIPA by harassing him on the basis of his religion.

         While “incarceration brings about the necessary withdrawal or limitation of many privileges and rights, ” inmates clearly retain First Amendment protection to freely exercise their religion, O'Lone v. Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 348 (1987), subject to reasonable restrictions and limitations related to legitimate penological interests. Id. at 350-53; accord Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 89 (1987). First Amendment protection extends to all religious beliefs, and guaranties “religious liberty and equality to the infidel, the atheist, or the adherent of a non-Christian faith . . . .”). County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 615 (1989). To state a free exercise claim, a plaintiff must allege facts from which an inference may be drawn that the government has placed “a substantial burden on the observation of a central religious belief or practice.” Hernandez v. C.I.R., 490 U.S. 680, 699 (1989).

         Likewise, RLUIPA provides in pertinent part that, “[n]o government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution . . . unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden . . .” furthers “a compelling governmental interest” and is done so by the least restrictive means. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a) (1)-(2). RLUIPA's institutionalized-persons provision alleviates government-created burdens on private religious exercise. Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709, 720 (2005). Although RLUIPA does not define “substantial burden, ” courts apply the traditional substantial burden test, as defined by the Supreme Court's free exercise jurisprudence. Episcopal Student Found. v. City of Ann Arbor, 341 F.Supp.2d 691, 701 (E.D. Mich. 2004) (citations omitted). A “substantial burden” requires something more than an incidental effect on religious exercise. See Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Ass'n, 485 U.S. 439, 450 (1988) (a substantial burden has “a tendency to coerce individuals into acting contrary to their religious beliefs”); Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Comm'n of Fla., 480 U.S. 136, 141 (1987) (there is a substantial burden where a regulation puts “substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs”); Midrash Sephardi, Inc. v. Town of Surfside, 366 F.3d 1214, 1226-27 (11th Cir. 2004) (a substantial burden must place more than an inconvenience on religious exercise); Civil Liberties for Urban Believers v. City of Chicago, 342 F.3d 752, 761 (7th Cir. 2003) (substantial burden is “one that necessarily bears direct, primary, and fundamental responsibility for rendering religious exercise . . . effectively impracticable”).

         A single instance of providing a cross-contaminated meal does not amount to a violation of either the First Amendment or the RLUIPA. See Colvin v. Caruso, 605 F.3d 282, 293-94 (6th Cir. 2010) (holding that isolated instances of errors in the provision of a kosher meal do not state a claim under the First Amendment or the RLUIPA); see also Johnson v. Wilkinson, 229 F.3d 1152, 2000 WL 1175519, at *2 (6th Cir. Aug. 11, 2000) (unpublished table decision) (holding that a prisoner's allegations about “random and isolated interference with [his] mail” did not rise to the level of a First Amendment violation). Nor is there any evidence that the isolated problem with Plaintiff's meal was willful. See Colvin, 605 F.3d at 293 (citing Gallagher v. Shelton, 587 F.3d 1063, 1070 (10th Cir. 2009) (affirming the dismissal of an inmate's claim that kosher utensils were contaminated because, despite evidence that prison officials might have “imperfectly implemented the kosher requirements, or were even negligent, ” there was “no basis to conclude that any of the defendants ...


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