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Davis v. Williams

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

February 7, 2017

DR. CHARLES WILLIAMS, et al., Defendants.


          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Michael Davis is confined at the Osborn Correctional Institution. He has filed a complaint pro se and in forma pauperis under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff names two defendants, Religious Facilitator Dr. Charles Williams and Correctional Officer Hutton. He alleges that his rights to the free exercise of his religion were violated when his name was removed on the basis of false pretenses from the list of prisoners who could attend religious services. He also alleges that he was denied due process when his grievances regarding defendants' actions went unanswered. After an initial review, I conclude that the complaint should be served on both defendants.


         The following allegations from plaintiff's complaint are accepted as true for purposes of the Court's initial review. On August 8, 2016, plaintiff was notified that Dr. Williams removed his name from the religious services list at the request of Correctional Officer Hutton. Doc. #1 at 5 (¶ 1). A week earlier, plaintiff had a verbal altercation with defendant Hutton during which he called her a “man bitch.” Following the altercation, defendant Hutton fabricated several incidents involving plaintiff. Id. at 5 (¶ 2).

         The notice indicated that plaintiff had been removed from the religious services list because he had ripped pages from a bible, and had passed notes and been disruptive during religious services-all allegations that, according to plaintiff, were false. Id. at 5 (¶ 3). Plaintiff submitted a request to meet with defendant Williams to discuss the matter. He received no response. Ibid.

         Plaintiff then filed a grievance, which was rejected because defendant Williams had not responded to his request. Id. at 5 (¶ 4). Plaintiff filed a grievance appeal which was denied on technical grounds. Id. at 6 (¶ 5). Plaintiff then filed another appeal, to which he did not receive a response despite formally requesting one. Id. at 6 (¶ 6). Meanwhile, defendants' actions have prevented plaintiff from practicing his religion; defendants have also falsely stated that plaintiff is homosexual and beyond redemption. Id. at 6 (¶ 9).


         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a), the Court must review prisoner civil complaints and dismiss any portion of the complaint that is frivolous or malicious, that fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or that seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. The Court must accept as true all factual matters alleged in a complaint, although a complaint may not survive unless its factual recitations state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. See, e.g., Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Mastafa v. Chevron Corp., 770 F.3d 170, 177 (2d Cir. 2014) (same). Nevertheless, it is well-established that “pro se complaints ‘must be construed liberally and interpreted to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest.'” Sykes v. Bank of Am., 723 F.3d 399, 403 (2d Cir. 2013) (quoting Triestman v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 470 F.3d 471, 474 (2d Cir. 2006)); see also Tracy v. Freshwater, 623 F.3d 90, 101-02 (2d Cir. 2010) (discussing special rules of solicitude for pro se litigants).

         Plaintiff contends that he has been denied the right to exercise his religion without being afforded due process. He claims that he did not receive any disciplinary charges for alleged misconduct that would justify removal of his name from the religious services list.

         The First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause applies to a prisoner's sincerely held religious belief. See Ford v. McGinnis, 352 F.3d 582, 588 (2d Cir. 2003) (Sotomayor, J.). “To prevail on a First Amendment claim, a plaintiff must show that he has a sincerely held religious belief, that it was substantially burdened, and that defendants' conduct was not reasonably related to some legitimate penological interest.” Barnes v. Furman, 629 Fed. App'x 52, 55 (2d Cir. 2015).[1]

         Plaintiff's allegations, taken as true, demonstrate a substantial burden on a sincerely held religious belief. The Court must “resist the dangerous temptation to try to judge the significance of particular devotional obligations to an observant practitioner of faith.” McEachin v. McGuinnis, 357 F.3d 197, 201 (2d Cir. 2004). Instead, the Court must ask whether the state has put “substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and violate his beliefs.” Id. at 202 n.4. Here, defendants have allegedly not only put pressure on plaintiff to modify his behavior-they have allegedly prevented him from attending religious services. Plaintiff states that he does “not feel right with the gospel, fellowship, and brotherhood out of [his] life” and feels “the defendants are forcing [him] away from his religion.” Doc. #1 at 6 (¶ 10). Such actions, along with their effects, amount to a substantial burden, particularly in light of the Second Circuit's indication that “demonstrating such a burden is not a particularly onerous task.” McEachin, 357 F.3d at 202.

         Next, the Court must consider whether the complaint plausibly alleges facts to show that defendants' actions are “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.” Holland v. Goord, 758 F.3d 215, 222 (2d Cir. 2014). Plaintiff alleges that he is being excluded from religious services on false pretenses and that defendants are spreading false statements about his sexual orientation, presumably to prejudice others in his religion against him. There is no legitimate governmental objective in excluding plaintiff from religious services for false or improper reasons. Accordingly, the First Amendment claim as alleged may proceed at this time.

         Plaintiff also claims that his due process rights were violated when he failed to receive responses to his grievances. The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that a State shall not “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” U.S. Const., Amdt. 14, § 1. The “standard analysis” for a claim of a violation of procedural due process “proceeds in two steps: We first ask whether there exists a liberty or property interest of which a person has been deprived, and if so we ask whether the procedures followed by the State were constitutionally sufficient.” Swarthout v. Cooke, 562 U.S. 216, 219 (2011) (per curiam).[2]

         As discussed above, plaintiff has plausibly alleged a violation of his free exercise rights. An individual's right to free exercise may arguably constitute the liberty interest protected by the due process clause. See, e.g., Means v. Nevada Dep't of Corr., 2010 WL 3982035, at *2 (D. Nev. 2010); Lovelace v. Bassett, 2008 WL 4452638, at *3 (W.D. Va. 2008); but see Ali v. West, 2017 WL 176304, at *5 (W.D. Wisc. 2017) (declining to recognize that denial of a prisoner's right to free exercise of religion is a deprivation of a liberty interest for purposes of a due process claim). “Whenever process is constitutionally due, no ...

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