United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Southern Division
L. MALONEY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
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,
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.)
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Failure to State a Claim
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)).
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).
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, ...