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Evans v. Washington

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

December 20, 2019

ALRELIO EVANS, Plaintiff,
v.
HEIDI WASHINGTON et al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          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 claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of his Fourteenth Amendment equal protections rights; Plaintiff's claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of his First Amendment free exercise rights by virtue of requiring Plaintiff to conduct private exercise of his religion in his cell; Plaintiff's claims for conspiracy under 42 U.S.C. § 1985; Plaintiff's claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), Pub. L. No. 103-141, 107 Stat. 1488 (1993), codified at 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb et seq.; Plaintiff's claims for damages against Defendant Washington in her official capacity; and Plaintiff's claims for damages under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), Pub. L. No. 106-274, 114 Stat. 803 (2000), codified at codified at 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb-2, 2000bb-3, and 2000cc et seq. The dismissal of those claims leaves Plaintiff's First Amendment claims for damages and injunctive and declaratory relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendants Curtis, Jackson, and Burrell in their personal capacity for violation of Plaintiff's First Amendment rights by virtue of applying the “five prisoner” rule and Plaintiff's claims for prospective injunctive and declaratory relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of Plaintiff's First Amendment free exercise rights and RLUIPA against Defendant Washington in her official capacity for maintaining and enforcing the “five prisoner” rule.

         Discussion

         I. Factual Allegations

         Plaintiff is presently incarcerated with the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) at the Chippewa Correctional Facility (URF) in Chippewa County, Michigan. The events about which he complains, however, occurred at the Michigan Reformatory (RMI) in Ionia County, Michigan and the E. C. Brooks Correctional Facility, (LRF) in Muskegon County, Michigan. Plaintiff sues RMI Chaplain Unknown Curtis, LRF Warden Shane Jackson, LRF Chaplain Onesiphorus Burrell, and MDOC Director Heidi Washington. Defendant Washington is sued only in her official capacity; the other Defendants are sued only in their respective personal capacities. (Compl., ECF No. 1, PageID.11.)

         Plaintiff identifies his religion as Jehovah's Witness. (Program Classification Report, ECF No. 1-2, PageID.37.) That religion is recognized by the MDOC and the department's Religious Groups Handbook notes that adherents are required to study the Bible daily and to attend corporate group study meetings weekly. (Religious Groups Handbook, ECF No. 1-3, PageID.43.)

         On May 17, 2019, Plaintiff was housed at RMI. He asked Chaplain Curtis to arrange to have Plaintiff called out for the Jehovah's Witness group service. In Plaintiff's request to Chaplain Curtis, Plaintiff claimed that under the authority of Kensu v. Cason, No. 1:91-cv-300, 1996 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5468 (W.D. Mich. Mar. 29, 1996), he should be permitted to attend a Jehovah's Witness service even if he were the only adherent. (May 17, 2019 Correspondence, ECF No. 1-1, PageID.32.) Plaintiff claimed that unless he was provided access to the chapel for a one-person group service, he would be unable to exercise his religion because of extreme noise and constant distractions in his housing unit.

         Despite Plaintiff's citation to authority and claim of an inability to otherwise exercise his religion, Chaplain Curtis denied Plaintiff's request. Chaplain Curtis explained that there were no Jehovah's Witness group services because there was not a sufficient number of adherents asking for such services as required by MDOC policy. MDOC policy provides:

Group religious services shall be offered at all institutions for prisoners belonging to a recognized religious group. . . . a service is not required to be conducted if there are less than five prisoners within the same security level of that institution who actively participate in the religious activities of a group.

(MDOC Policy Directive 05.03.150, ECF No. 1-7, PageID.161.) Plaintiff was transferred a month later.

         Plaintiff eventually ended up at LRF. On August 3, 2019, Plaintiff sent to LRF Chaplain Burrell and LRF Warden Jackson, a request to attend group services similar to the one that he had sent to Chaplain Curtis at RMI. (Aug. 3, 2019, Correspondence, ECF No. 1-1, PageID.27-28.) It does not appear that Plaintiff ever received a response. (Compl., ECF No. 1, PageID.12.) Nonetheless, two days later, Plaintiff filed a grievance against Burrell and Jackson. (August 5, 2019, Grievance, ECF No. 1-1, PageID.26.) Plaintiff was transferred a month later, presumably to URF where he presently resides.

         Plaintiff notes that he attended Jehovah's Witness services alone at the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility (ARF) in Lenawee County, Michigan. Thus, he contends, the “five prisoner” requirement for group services is not enforced at every prison in Michigan. Plaintiff's interpretation is certainly possible; however, it is also possible that five prisoners requested group services but simply did not attend each service. Plaintiff has also been able to attend Jehovah's Witness group services at RMI during a previous stay when the “five prisoner” rule was satisfied. Evan et al. v. Prisk et al., No. 2:17-cv-46 (W.D. Mich.) (Plaintiff's Reply Br., ECF No. 85, PageID.512.) Nonetheless, Plaintiff claims that Jehovah's Witness adherents are treated differently than Catholic, Protestant, Moorish Science Temple of America, Buddhist, Al Islam, and Nation of Islam adherents, who are permitted to attend group services.

         Based on these allegations, Plaintiff asserts that Defendants Curtis, Jackson, and Burrell violated Plaintiff's First Amendment right to free exercise of his religion by denying Plaintiff's request to attend religious services as a Jehovah's Witness. Plaintiff accuses Defendants Curtis, Jackson, and Burrell of violating plaintiff right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment by not allowing Jehovah's Witness adherents to attend services in the chapel, but allowing other religions to do so. Plaintiff claims all four Defendants violated his rights by conspiring to apply the “five prisoner” requirement to prevent Plaintiff from participating in group services in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985. Plaintiff claims all four Defendants violated his rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Finally, Plaintiff claims that Defendant Washington violated his rights under the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause, RLUIPA, and the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection clause by maintaining and enforcing the “five prisoner” requirement.

         This is not Plaintiff's first lawsuit raising the substance of these allegations- although it is the first time he has raised such allegations against these Defendants. In Evans et al. v. Prisk et al., No. 2:17-cv-46 (W.D. Mich.) (Evans I), Plaintiff sued Marquette Branch Prison (MBP) Chaplain Thomas Prisk and MBP Warden Robert Napel claiming that Prisk and Napel applied the “five prisoner” rule to deny Plaintiff group worship service at MBP. In Evans I, the Court dismissed Plaintiff's challenge to the “five prisoner” rule, as applied to him at MBP, on qualified immunity grounds.

         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)).

         III. Sovereign immunity

         Plaintiff may not maintain a § 1983 action against the Michigan Department of Corrections. Regardless of the form of relief requested, the states and their departments are immune under the Eleventh Amendment from suit in the federal courts, unless the state has waived immunity or Congress has expressly abrogated Eleventh Amendment immunity by statute. See Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 98-101 (1984); Alabama v. Pugh, 438 U.S. 781, 782 (1978); O'Hara v. Wigginton, 24 F.3d 823, 826 (6th Cir. 1993). Congress has not expressly abrogated Eleventh Amendment immunity by statute, Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332, 341 (1979), and the State of Michigan has not consented to civil rights suits in federal court. Abick v. Michigan, 803 F.2d 874, 877 (6th Cir. 1986). In numerous opinions, the Sixth Circuit has specifically held that the MDOC is absolutely immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment. See, e.g., Harrison v. Michigan, 722 F.3d 768, 771 (6th Cir. 2013); Diaz v. Mich. Dep't of Corr., 703 F.3d 956, 962 (6th Cir. 2013); McCoy v. Michigan, 369 Fed.Appx. 646, 653-54 (6th Cir. 2010).

         Plaintiff sues Defendant Washington in only her official capacity. A suit against an individual in her official capacity is equivalent to a suit brought against the governmental entity: in this case, the Michigan Department of Corrections. See Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989); Matthews v. Jones, 35 F.3d 1046, 1049 (6th Cir. 1994). An official-capacity defendant is absolutely immune from monetary damages. Will, 491 U.S. at 71; Turker v. Ohio Dep't of Rehab. & Corr., 157 F.3d 453, 456 (6th Cir. 1998); Wells v. Brown, ...


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