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Gordon v. Unknown Towns

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

August 29, 2019

UNKNOWN TOWNS et al., Defendants.



         This is a civil rights action brought by a state prisoner under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and RLUIPA. 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 claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Plaintiff's claims for violation of his First Amendment free exercise rights, claims for violation of his Fourteenth Amendment equal protection rights, and state-law tort claims remain.


         I. Factual Allegations

         Plaintiff is presently incarcerated with the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) at the Oaks Correctional Facility (ECF) in Manistee, Michigan. The events about which he complains, however, occurred at the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility (LRF) in Muskegon Heights, Michigan, the Marquette Branch Prison (MBP) in Marquette, Michigan, and the Carson City Correctional Facility (DRF) in Carson City, Michigan. Plaintiff sues an unknown John/Jane Doe Transfer Coordinator from LRF, Prison Counselor Fred Governor from MBP, DRF Corrections Officers Unknown Palmer, Unknown Zavala, Unknown McMurphy, and Unknown Maurer, and DRF food service worker Unknown Towns.

         Plaintiff alleges that he is an adherent of Buddhism. He follows the Buddhist dietary laws. To accommodate that exercise of his religious beliefs, the MDOC provides a vegan diet in several of its correctional facilities, including LRF and DRF, but not MBP. MDOC Policy Directive 05.03.150 ¶ OO.

         During July of 2018, the LRF Transfer Coordinator transferred Plaintiff from LRF to MBP. Plaintiff contends the transfer was a deliberate and knowing attempt to burden the free exercise of his religion.

         The MDOC did not transfer Plaintiff on a whim. This Court, in connection with Plaintiff's action in Gordon v. Rondeau et al., No. 2:16-cv-89 (W.D. Mich.), ordered the MDOC to produce Plaintiff at its Marquette courthouse for a final pretrial/settlement conference. (2:16-cv-89, ECF No. 70.) Apparently, pursuant to the Court's writ of habeas corpus ad testificandum, Defendant LRF Transfer Coordinator effected the transfer to MBP. MBP is certainly the closest MDOC facility to the Marquette courthouse; however, the next two closest facilities-the Baraga Correctional Facility and the Alger Correctional Facility-both offer a vegan diet option. Plaintiff contends that, once he was approved for the religious diet, the MDOC was required to provide the meals, even if providing the meals required a transfer. MDOC policy supports his claim. See MDOC Policy Directive, 05.03.150 ¶ OO.

         When Plaintiff arrived at MBP, he brought the religious diet issue to the attention of Defendant Governor and demanded a transfer. Defendant Governor refused for 16 days, stating: “F**k your religious diet, that's the consequence of suing the MDOC.” (Compl., ECF No. 1, PageID.11.) Plaintiff alleges Defendant Governor's refusal to transfer Plaintiff or arrange for Plaintiff to have a religious diet placed a substantial burden on Plaintiff's ability to practice his beliefs. His only options were to starve or eat food in direct violation of those beliefs.

         On October 18, 2018, Plaintiff was transferred to DRF. He received his religious diet for a couple of days, but on October 20, Defendant Towns began refusing to send Plaintiff's religious diet to his unit and instructed other staff to also refuse. Plaintiff contends that corrections officers, including Defendant Palmer, confirmed for Towns that Plaintiff was approved to eat the religious diet. Nonetheless, Towns denied Plaintiff his religious diet until October 30 when Plaintiff's grievance regarding the matter was reviewed.

         Plaintiff alleges that the remaining defendants, Palmer, Zavala, McMurphy, and Maurer, conspired to discriminate against him because of his religion by refusing to call him out for his prison job for three months.

         Plaintiff contends that the defendants' conduct was negligent and/or rose to the level of an intentional tort under state law. He claims that the corrections officer defendants violated his Fourteenth Amendment equal protection rights. Finally, Plaintiff claims that all of the Defendants interfered with Plaintiff's right to freely exercise his religion and also violated RLUIPA. Plaintiff asks the Court to enter a declaratory judgment finding that Defendants' actions violated Plaintiff's rights and he seeks compensatory and punitive damages.

         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 ...

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