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Bennett v. Burt

United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Southern Division

December 2, 2016

S. L. BURT et al., Defendants.


          Janet T. Neff United States District Judge.

         This is a civil rights action brought by a state prisoner pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. 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. § 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 David Todd Bennett, Sr. is incarcerated with the Michigan Department of Corrections at the Muskegon Correctional Facility (MCF) in Muskegon Heights, Michigan. Plaintiff sues four defendants in their official and personal capacities: MCF Warden S. L. Burt; MCF Classifications Director R. Kitchens; MCF Food Service Director R. Eckert; and former MCF Food Service shift supervisor (unknown) Mosley. Plaintiff raises only one claim against these Defendants. He alleges that they violated his First Amendment right to freely exercise his religion when they removed him from a kitchen work detail because he refused to work on Saturdays, his sabbath day of rest. Plaintiff seeks a declaratory judgment that Defendants' actions violated his First Amendment rights as well as compensatory and punitive damages from each Defendant.

         Plaintiff's allegations are concise:

On [Wednesday] 3/30/16 Plaintiff recieved [sic] a callout/itinarary [sic] for a work detail in the chow hall. Immediatly [sic] upon reporting for work Plaintiff spoke with Ms. Mosley about the days of work for this detail. Ms. Mosley informed Plaintiff his scheduled days for work were Saturday-Wednesday. Plaintiff then stated to Ms. Mosley that he would not be able to work on Saturday as that day is his religious sabbath day for rest, and it would be a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of religion to be forced to work. Ms. Mosley then stated that per policy Plaintiff would need to get a religious release from the chaplain.
At the end of Plaintiff”s work shift on Wednesday 3/30/16, after returning to his housing unit, the unit officer instructed Plaintiff to the L.T.A. building and speak with Defendant R. Kitchens, Plaintiff then was directed to the chow hall to speak with Food Service Director Eckert, in an attempt to get Plaintiff to reconsider his position, to no avail, at which time Eckert sent Plaintiff back to classifications to speak with R. Kitchens again, who informed Plaintiff that there was nothing he could do other than remove Plaintiff from the callout.
On [Thursday] 3/31/16, after not recieving [sic] a callout for work, Plaintiff wrote a kite to warden S. Burt explaining the situation and the attempt to violate Plaintiff's First Amendment rights. As of the filing of this complaint there has not been any response from warden Burt on this matter.
On [Monday] 4/4/16 after not recieving [sic] any response from warden Burt Plaintiff filed a Step I grievance.
On [Thursday] 4/07/16 after filing the grievance Plaintiff was reinstated back to work in the chow hall dinning [sic] room.

(Compl., ECF No. 1, PageID.7, 8.) Plaintiff's allegations are insufficient to state a claim for violation of his First Amendment rights.


         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.” Id. 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.” Id. 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). Plaintiff alleges that Defendants infringed his First Amendment right to freely exercise his religion.

         II. First Amendment right to free exercise of religion

         The First Amendment provides “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” U.S. Const. amend I. The right to freely exercise one's religion falls within the fundamental concept of liberty under the Fourteenth Amendment. Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 303 (1940). Accordingly, state legislatures and those acting on behalf of a state are “as incompetent as Congress” to interfere with the right. Id.

         While “lawful incarceration brings about the necessary withdrawal or limitation of many privileges and rights, ” inmates clearly retain the First Amendment protection to freely exercise their religion. See O'Lone v. Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 348 (1987) (citations omitted). To establish that this right has been violated, Plaintiff must establish that: (1) the belief or practice he seeks to protect is religious within his own “scheme of things, ” (2) that his belief is sincerely held, and (3) Defendant's behavior infringes upon this practice or belief. Kent v. Johnson, 821 F.2d 1220, 1224-25 (6th Cir. 1987); see also Flagner v. Wilkinson, 241 F.3d 475, 481 (6th Cir. 2001) ...

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