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Townsend v. Ouellette

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

January 4, 2018

MARGARET A. OUELLETTE et al., Defendants.


          Paul L. Maloney United States District Judge

         This is a civil rights action brought by a state prisoner under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Pub. L. No. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321 (1996) (PLRA), 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, the Court will dismiss Plaintiff's complaint for failure to state a claim against Defendants Ouellette, Davis, and Russell. The Court will serve the complaint against Defendants Leach, Curley, and Johnson.


         I. Factual allegations

         Plaintiff is presently incarcerated with the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) at the Lakeland Correctional Facility (LCF) in Coldwater, Branch County, Michigan. The events about which he complains occurred at that facility. Plaintiff sues LCF Doctor Troy Davis, LCF Physician's Assistant Margaret A. Ouellette, MDOC Special Activities Coordinator David M. Leach, MDOC Assistant Deputy Director John Curley, MDOC Administrator Daphne M. Johnson, and MDOC Grievance Section Manager Richard D. Russell.[1] Each Defendant is sued in his or her individual and official capacity.

         Plaintiff's claims center on his health care and his Buddhist faith. He claims that the Defendants have refused to accommodate his adherence to that faith with respect to his diet and his healthcare.

         Defendant Ouellette saw Plaintiff on January 6, 2016. Plaintiff claims Defendant Ouellette:

(1) denied treatment for sleep apnea with full knowledge of the potential for serious physical injury or possible death from oxygen deprivation;
(2) denied or discontinued treatment for a vitamin B-12 deficiency resulting from strict adherence to Plaintiff's religious diet;[2]
(3) refused to permit Plaintiff to purchase dietary supplements to remedy the deficiency;
(4) refused to provide the PSA blood test to screen for prostate cancer, insisting that Plaintiff undergo a digital examination which violated his religious beliefs; and
(5) refused to submit a request to Corizon Healthcare for treatments, at Plaintiff's expense, that conform to his religious beliefs.

(Compl., ECF No. 1, PageID.7-8.) Plaintiff claims Defendant Ouellette was motivated, at least in part, by animus against Plaintiff's Buddhist beliefs.

         About one year later, on January 15, 2017, Defendant Davis saw Plaintiff. (Id., PageID.8.) Plaintiff informed Defendant Davis that Plaintiff was a strict Buddhist. On January 19, 2017, Defendant Davis put Plaintiff on call for a blood draw to assess Plaintiff's vitamin B-12 level. On February 1, 2017, Defendant Davis informed Plaintiff that his vitamin B-12 level was normal. On March 29, 2017, Plaintiff received a copy of the blood test that Plaintiff contends showed that his vitamin B-12 level was not within the normal range; rather, it was low.

         Plaintiff alleges that he is required to purge and clarify his physical temple of all impurities by anointing with sacramental oils. (Id., PageID.9.) The oils must be free of alcohol and animal byproducts. The MDOC policy directives do not permit inmates to possess religious oils in their cells. Plaintiff sought an accommodation so that he could use sacramental oils that are non-flammable and non-toxic for purging and clarification of his spiritual temple in his cell. (March 23, 2015 Letter, ECF No. 1-1, PageID.47.)[3]

         Plaintiff alleges that the request was denied for lack of authority by LCF Warden Hoffner. (Compl., ECF No 1, PageID.9.) Plaintiff's request sought permission to possess and use the religious oils. MDOC Policy Directive 05.03.150 (Eff. 9/15/2015) directs the prisoner to submit a request to possess religious property not previously authorized to the warden. The warden does not have authority under the policy directive to grant or deny the request. The warden simply forwards it on to the CFA Special Activities Coordinator. The CFA Special Activities Coordinator, in turn, forwards the request on to the Deputy Director. The Deputy Director makes the final decision. Thus, Warden Hoffner sent the request to Defendant Leach. Defendant Leach submitted the request to Defendant Curley. Defendant Curley denied the request because the oils were toxic and because Plaintiff could meditate without the oils using other items of religious property-mala beads and a picture of the Buddha. (Memorandum, ECF No. 1-1, PageID.52.) Defendant Leach communicated the denial to Warden Hoffner and Plaintiff.

         Plaintiff sought a declaratory ruling from MDOC Director Heidi Washington under Michigan Adminstrative Rule 791.1115 regarding the vitamins and the oil. (Pet. for Declaratory Ruling, ECF No. 1-1, PageID.69-71.) Director Washington apparently designated Defendant Johnson to reply. By letter dated September 2, 2016, Defendant Johnson informed Plaintiff that Defendant Curley had resolved the oil request as required by policy. (Sept. 2, 2016 Letter, ECF No. 1-1, PageID.68.) She further informed Plaintiff that his request regarding the vitamins had been forwarded to the Correctional Facilities Administration for additional review. (Id.) Plaintiff does not indicate whether he ever received a response from CFA. Defendant Johnson told Plaintiff he could interpret a failure to respond as a denial of his request.

         Plaintiff contends that Defendants Davis and Ouellette have been deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment, have violated his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a)(1)-(2), have violated his First Amendment free exercise rights, and his Fourteenth Amendment equal protection rights.

         Plaintiff claims that Defendants Leach and Curley have substantially burdened his religion in violation of the First Amendment by denying Plaintiff religious oils and refusing to permit him to purchase vitamins free of alcohol and animal byproducts from an outside vendor. Plaintiff argues that all defendants have violated the RLUIPA by denying Plaintiff religious oils and refusing to permit him to purchase vitamins free of animal byproducts from an outside vendor.

         Finally, Plaintiff contends the Defendants' conduct violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA).

         Plaintiff asks the Court to enter declaratory and injunctive relief permitting him to purchase religious oils and vitamins and ordering an EKG and stress test as well as the PSA blood test. Plaintiff also asks the Court to award compensatory damages of $50, 000.00 and punitive damages of $35, 000.00 against each Defendant.

         II. 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); Street v. Corr. Corp. of Am., 102 F.3d 810, 814 (6th Cir. 1996). 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 claims that Defendants have violated his rights under the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments as well as RLUIPA and RFRA.

         III. Defendant Russell

         It is a basic pleading essential that a plaintiff attribute factual allegations to particular defendants. See Twombly, 550 U.S. at 544 (holding that, in order to state a claim, a plaintiff must make sufficient allegations to give a defendant fair notice of the claim). Where a person is named as a defendant without an allegation of specific conduct, the complaint is subject to dismissal, even under the liberal construction afforded to pro se complaints. See Frazier v. Michigan, 41 Fed.Appx. 762, 764 (6th Cir. 2002) (dismissing the plaintiff's claims where the complaint did not allege with any degree of specificity which of the named defendants were personally involved in or responsible for each alleged violation of rights); Griffin v. Montgomery, No. 00-3402, 2000 WL 1800569, at *2 (6th Cir. Nov. 30, 2000) (requiring allegations of personal involvement against each defendant)); Rodriguez v. Jabe, No. 90-1010, 1990 WL 82722, at *1 (6th Cir. June 19, 1990) (“Plaintiff's claims against those individuals are without a basis in law as the complaint is totally devoid of allegations as to them which would suggest their involvement in the events leading to his injuries.”). Plaintiff fails to attribute any action or inaction to Defendant Russell in the body of his complaint. His allegations fall far short of the minimal pleading standards under Fed.R.Civ.P. 8 (requiring “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief”).

         Because Defendant Russell is identified as the manager of the grievance section of the MDOC, it appears likely that Plaintiff is suing Russell for his role in responding to one of Plaintiff's grievances.[4] Government officials may not be held liable for the unconstitutional conduct of their subordinates under a theory of respondeat superior or vicarious liability. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 676; Monell v. New York City Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 691(1978); Everson v. Leis, 556 F.3d 484, 495 (6th Cir. 2009). A claimed constitutional violation must be based upon active unconstitutional behavior. Grinter v. Knight, 532 F.3d 567, 575-76 (6th Cir. 2008); Greene v. Barber, 310 F.3d 889, 899 (6th Cir. 2002). The acts of one's subordinates are not enough, nor can supervisory liability be based upon the mere failure to act. Grinter, 532 F.3d at 576; Greene, 310 F.3d at 899; Summers v. Leis, 368 F.3d 881, 888 (6th Cir. 2004). Moreover, § 1983 liability may not be imposed simply because a supervisor denied an administrative grievance or failed to act based upon information contained in a grievance. See Shehee v. Luttrell, 199 F.3d 295, 300 (6th Cir. 1999). “[A] plaintiff must plead that each Government-official defendant, through the official's own individual actions, has violated the Constitution.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 676. Plaintiff has failed to allege that Defendant Russell did anything more than respond to grievances; thus, Plaintiff has failed to allege that Defendant Russell engaged in any active unconstitutional behavior. Accordingly, he fails to state a claim against him.

         IV. Deliberate indifference to serious medical need

         The Eighth Amendment prohibits the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment against those convicted of crimes. U.S. Const. amend. VIII. The Eighth Amendment obligates prison authorities to provide medical care to incarcerated individuals, as a failure to provide such care would be inconsistent with contemporary standards of decency. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 102, 103-04 (1976). The Eighth Amendment is violated when a prison official is deliberately indifferent to the serious medical needs of a prisoner. Id. at 104-05; Comstock v. McCrary, 273 F.3d 693, 702 (6th Cir. 2001).

         A claim for the deprivation of adequate medical care has an objective and a subjective component. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994). To satisfy the objective component, the plaintiff must allege that the medical need at issue is sufficiently serious. Id. In other words, the inmate must show that he is incarcerated under conditions posing a substantial risk of serious harm. Id. The objective component of the adequate medical care test is satisfied “[w]here the seriousness of a prisoner's need[ ] for medical care is obvious even to a lay person.” Blackmore v. Kalamazoo Cnty., 390 F.3d 890, 899 (6th Cir. 2004). If the plaintiff's claim, however, is based on “the prison's failure to treat a condition adequately, or where the prisoner's affliction is seemingly minor or non-obvious, ” Blackmore v. Kalamazoo Cnty., 390 F.3d 890, 898 (6th Cir. 2004), the plaintiff must “place verifying medical evidence in the record to establish the detrimental effect of the delay in medical treatment, ” Napier v. Madison Cnty., 238 F.3d 739, 742 (6th Cir. 2001) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The subjective component requires an inmate to show that prison officials have “a sufficiently culpable state of mind in denying medical care.” Brown v. Bargery, 207 F.3d 863, 867 (6th Cir. 2000) (citing Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834). Deliberate indifference “entails something more than mere negligence, ” Farmer, 511 U.S. at 835, but can be “satisfied by something less than acts or omissions for the very purpose of causing harm or with knowledge that harm will result.” Id. Under Farmer, “the official must both be ...

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