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Colvin v. Horton

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

August 20, 2019

CONNIE HORTON et al., Defendants.



         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.


         I. Factual Allegations

         Plaintiff is presently incarcerated with the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) at the Alger Correctional Facility (LMF) in Munising, Alger County, Michigan. The events about which he complains, however, occurred at the Chippewa Correctional Facility (URF) in Kincheloe, Chippewa County, Michigan, and the Muskegon Correctional Facility (MCF) in Muskegon, Muskegon County, Michigan. Plaintiff sues MDOC Special Activities Coordinator Steven Adamson and former Special Activities Coordinator David M. Leach, together with the following current or former URF Officials: Former Warden Jeffrey Woods; Former Deputy Warden Connie Horton; and Chaplain Dave Rink. He also sues MCF Chaplain K. Pelky and MCF Deputy Warden D.M. Steward.

         Plaintiff's complaint covers several distinct issues and events.[1] Plaintiff first alleges that, on October 4, 2016, he transferred to URF from the Oaks Correctional Facility. Upon arrival, Plaintiff sent letters to Defendants Woods and Rink, asking to be placed on the list for a religious diet and attaching documentation showing that he had been approved to receive kosher meals since 2012. Defendants Woods and Rink, however, took no action in response to his letters. Plaintiff was not placed on the religious-diet list.

         On October 22, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Step-I grievance, complaining that he was being denied his religious diet. (Attach. to Compl., ECF No. 1-1, PageID.18.) He indicated in the grievance that he had sent Defendant Rink several kites about the matter, without response. No. action was taken on the Step-I grievance. Receiving no response, Plaintiff filed a Step-II grievance on December 1, 2016. Defendant Woods responded to the grievance on December 10, 2016, noting that the Step-I grievance response was untimely and concluding that Plaintiff had been approved for the diet but had not been placed in the callout system upon his transfer. Defendant Woods indicated that Plaintiff would immediately be placed on the list for religious meals as of December 10, 2016. (Id., PageID.19-20.)

         Plaintiff alleges that, prior to the Step-II response, he was interviewed by Defendant Rink on December 9, 2016. At that time, Defendant Rink admitted that he had received the Step-I grievance, but he had misplaced it somewhere. Defendant Rink advised Plaintiff that he would be placed on the religious-diet list the next day. Plaintiff began receiving his religious diet, as promised, on December 10, 2016.

         Plaintiff complains that the deprivation of his religious diet for two months violated his rights under the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause and under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a).

         Plaintiff next complains about alleged religious violations that occurred in January 2018. Plaintiff alleges that he became aware of a “Jewish Program” at the Macomb Correctional Facility (MRF), which purportedly is sponsored by the Aleph Institute. (Compl., ECF No. 1, PageID.5.) According to Plaintiff, the sponsored program included religious services led by a rabbi and the provision of a kosher diet that was not the vegan diet provided to all prisoners receiving a religious diet at URF. Plaintiff attaches the affidavits of three prisoners who had been at MRF and claimed knowledge of the program. (See Attach. to Compl., ECF No. 1-1, PageID.25-27.)

         Plaintiff requested a transfer to MRF, so that he could participate in the Jewish Program, by writing to the unspecified Special Activities Coordinator and Chaplain Rink. Plaintiff was denied a transfer. On January 22, 2018, Plaintiff wrote a Step-I grievance, alleging that he was fully qualified to participate in the program and that his religious needs would be better fulfilled in the program. He contended that, in denying him a transfer, Defendants were violating his rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments by preventing him from freely practicing his religion and subjecting him to discrimination. (Attach. to Compl., ECF No. 22, PageID.21.)

         On January 31, 2018, Defendant Rink interviewed Plaintiff on the grievance. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Rink implicitly acknowledged the existence of a Jewish Program at MRF, but informed Plaintiff that unknown staff had told Rink that Plaintiff would not be transferred to MRF. Defendant Rink advised Plaintiff that he supported the decision denying Plaintiff's request to transfer, because “the MDOC [wa]s tired of [Plaintiff] and his continuous litigating . . . .” (Compl., ECF No. 1, PageID.5.) In the grievance response issued that same day, Defendant Rink indicated that transfer was not required by the law, because Plaintiff received religious accommodations at URF that allowed him to practice his faith, including the space and time for a Jewish service, adequate religious library callouts and reading material, and a religious diet. Rink stated that neither the constitution nor prison policy guaranteed Plaintiff a right to transfer to a facility that had a special Jewish program. (Attach. to Compl., ECF No. 1-1, PageID.22.)

         Plaintiff appealed the grievance denial to Step II. (Id., PageID.24.) Defendant Horton responded to his grievance on February 16, 2018, finding the Step-I response to be appropriate and supported by policy. Defendant Horton concluded that Defendant Rink had properly found under applicable policy that URF was providing Plaintiff the necessary elements for his Jewish service. (Id., PageID.23.) Horton's response implied that a special Jewish Program existed at MRF.

         Plaintiff appealed to Step III. Defendant Leach responded that the religious meal program at MRF was no different than the one provided at URF. (Compl., ECF No. 1, PageID.6.) Plaintiff contends that Defendant Leach's response was inaccurate in representing that the program was the same. In addition, he contends that, while URF permits him to attend a scheduled religious service, he does not have a consistent opportunity to participate in group religious services, because so few prisoners attend the scheduled time for services.

         On December 17, 2018, Plaintiff wrote Defendant Adamson, again asking to be transferred to MRF to participate in the Jewish Program. Adamson did not respond. Plaintiff filed a grievance on January 21, 2019, complaining that Defendants Adamson and Rink had failed to respond to his request to be transferred. Defendant Rink denied the grievance at Step I on May 28, 2019.

         In the interim, on February 14, 2019, Plaintiff wrote to Defendant Pelky at MCF, again asking to be transferred to MRF.[2] Defendant Pelky denied Plaintiff's response and allegedly included false statements in his response to Plaintiff's grievance. Plaintiff apparently appealed his grievance through Step III. The Step-III grievance was denied on April 23, 2019.

         Plaintiff asserts that, by denying his transfer to MRF, Defendants violated his rights to equal protection and to freely exercise his religion, in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments and the RLUIPA. He also contends that that Defendants denied him the right to transfer in retaliation for the exercise of his right to petition government by filing grievances and civil rights complaints.

         In his final set of allegations, Plaintiff asserts that, on March 3, 2019, and again on March 5, 2019, he mailed requests to be placed on the list for participation in the Fast of Esther. On March 7, Defendant Chaplain Pelky responded, stating the following:

I received two kites from you requesting that you be added to the list for a meal bag during the Fast of Esther on 3/20/2019. I received both of these kites on 3/7/2019; However, the deadline for submitting your name to central office was 3/5/2019. It is consequently not possible for me to add your name to this list.

(Compl., ECF No. 1, PageID.8.) Plaintiff complains that the kites were submitted in a timely manner, but, because Defendant Pelky did not work Monday through Wednesday, he did not see the kites until after the deadline.

         On March 14, 2019, Plaintiff spoke with Defendant Deputy Warden Steward about Defendant Pelky's refusal to place him on the list for participation in the fast. Plaintiff argued that Defendant Pelky had failed to post the deadline for participating in the fast. Defendant Steward responded that the prison had no intention of posting anything and that Plaintiff should be aware of his own upcoming religious holy days. Plaintiff also insisted that there was no valid reason for the deadline, as the food items involved-bread, fruit, peanut butter and jelly, cold cereal, and milk-were always in the kitchen. When Plaintiff told Steward that he was writing a grievance, Steward allegedly became angry and threatened to have Plaintiff transferred.

         Plaintiff contends that the failure to provide him a meal bag on the Fast of Esther violated his religious rights under the First Amendment and RLUIPA. He also argues that Defendants Pelky and Steward violated prison policy when they failed to post the deadline for receiving a meal bag for the Fast of Esther.

         On April 30, 2019, four days after Plaintiff's civil trial in Colvin v. Morefield, No. 1:15-cv-70, Plaintiff was transferred to LMF. Plaintiff claims that the transfer was ordered in retaliation for Plaintiff's grievances and complaints, in violation of the First Amendment.

         Plaintiff seeks substantial compensatory and punitive damages, together with an injunction directing that he be transferred to MRF.

         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).

         A. 2016 Denial of Religious Diet

         In his first set of allegations, Plaintiff contends that he was denied his religious diet for two months by the actions and inactions of Defendants Woods, Rink, Horton, and Leach. Specifically, he alleges that he wrote to both Defendants Woods and Rink when he arrived at URF, notifying them of his approval for the religious diet, but they failed to ensure that he was placed on the religious-diet list. In addition, he argues that Defendant Rink neglected to respond to his Step-I grievance promptly. Plaintiff was not interviewed by Rink until Plaintiff filed a Step-II grievance with Defendant Woods. At that point, he alleges, Defendant Rink told him that he had misplaced the Step-I grievance, and Rink immediately authorized Plaintiff's placement on the list. Woods acknowledged that the Step-II grievance had not been responded to in a timely fashion, but he found that the matter was now resolved because Plaintiff had been placed on the list. Plaintiff appealed his grievance to Step-III, which was denied by Defendant Leach. Plaintiff argues that the deprivation of his religious meals for two months violated his rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and RLUIPA. He also alleges that the failure to place him on the religious-diet list violated his right to equal protection. Finally, he alleges that Defendant Horton, as then-Deputy Warden, should have known that Plaintiff was to be placed on the religious-diet list, as she had printed a history of Plaintiff's religious-menu approval, showing that Plaintiff was approved for the religious diet in 2012. (Compl., ECF No. 1, PageID.4; Attach. to Compl., ECF No. 101, PageID.14.)

         1. Free Exercise Clause

         Plaintiff's allegations against Defendants Rink, Woods, Horton, and Leach sound in negligence. It is well established that negligent conduct will not state a constitutional claim under § 1983. See Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 330 (1986) (holding that the protections of the Due Process Clause of the constitution are not “triggered by a lack of due care by prison officials.”) (citing Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976) (“Medical malpractice does not become a constitutional violation merely because the victim is a prisoner . . . .”), and Baker v. McCollum, 443 U.S. 137, 1464 (1979) (holding that false imprisonment does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment simply because the defendant is a state official). Numerous courts have recognized that a prison official's negligent interference with a prisoner's religious diet does not violate the constitution. See Colvin v. Caruso, 605 F.3d 282, 293-94 (6th Cir. 2010) (holding that isolated incidents of negligence by prison officials in implementing kosher food requirements is not actionable under the First Amendment); Gallagher v. Shelton, 587 F.3d 1063, 1069 (10th Cir. 2009) (isolated acts of negligence in providing kosher diet do not support a free-exercise claim); Lovelace v. Lee, 472 F.3d 174, 201 (4th Cir. 2006) (“[Plaintiff] must assert conscious or intentional interference with his free exercise rights to state a valid claim under § 1983.”) (citing Daniels, 474 U.S. at 330). Because “negligent acts by officials causing unintended denials of religious rights do not violate the Free Exercise Clause, ” Lovelace, 472 F.3d at 201, Plaintiff fails to state a free exercise claim against Defendants Rink, Woods, and Leach arising out of the 2016 failure to provide Plaintiff with religious meals.

         Plaintiff's free exercise claim against Defendants Woods, Leach, and Horton fails for an additional reason. 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 Defendants Woods, Horton, and Leach engaged in any active unconstitutional behavior. Accordingly, he fails to state a claim against them for this additional reason.

         2. RLUIPA

         The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a), provides that “[n]o government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to [a prison] . . . unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person: (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” Id.; see also Haight v. Thompson, 763 F.3d 554, 559-60 (6th Cir. 2014).

         Plaintiff's RLUIPA claims against Defendants Woods, Rink, Horton, and Leach fail for several reasons. First, the RLUIPA does not authorize damages actions against state actors in their individual capacities. Cavin v. Mich. Dep't of Corr., 927 F.3d 455, 460 (6th Cir. 2019); Haight v. Thompson, 763 F.3d 554, 570 (6th Cir. 2014); see also Washington v. Gonyea, 731 F.3d 143, 145-46 (2d Cir. 2013); Stewart v. Beach, 701 F.3d 1322, 1334-35 (10th Cir. 2012); Sharp v. Johnson, 669 F.3d 144, 153 (3d Cir. 2012); Nelson v. Miller, 570 F.3d 868, 886-89 (7th Cir. 2009); Rendelman v. Rouse, 569 F.3d 182, 186-89 (4th Cir. 2009); Sossamon v. Texas, 560 F.3d 316, 327- 29 (5th Cir. 2009); S ...

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