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Allen v. Kunkel

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

July 22, 2018

CAPTAIN J. KUNKEL, et al. Defendants.


          Janet C. Hall United States District Judge.

         On February 20, 2018, the plaintiff, Christopher M. Allen (“Allen”), an inmate currently housed at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution (“MWCI”) in Suffield, Connecticut, filed a complaint pro se pursuant to title 42, section 1983 of the United States Code against three Connecticut Department of Correction (“DOC”) employees: Captain J. Kunkel, Correctional Counselor Jessica Bennet, and Correction Officer Irizarry. Complaint (“Compl.”) (Doc. No. 1). Allen claimed that the defendants violated his First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion, free speech, and petition for redress of grievances, his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1, his Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process, his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection of the laws, and various provisions of the Connecticut Constitution, for denying access to a Moorish religious book entitled Nationality, Birthrights, and Jurisprudence. Initial Review Order (Doc. No. 7) at 2-3.

         On March 13, 2018, this court issued its Initial Review Order dismissing Allen's claims against Bennet. Id. at 12. The court permitted Allen's religious exercise claims under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article First, Section 3 of the Connecticut Constitution to proceed against Kunkel and Irizarry in their individual capacities for damages and in their official capacities for equitable relief. Id. The court also permitted the RLUIPA claim to proceed against Kunkel and Irizarry but only in their official capacities for equitable relief. Id.

         On March 26, 2018, Allen moved to amend his Complaint and add another religious freedom claim against ten new state officials: Steven Strom, Attorney O'Brasky, Reverend Williams, Director Karl Lewis, Counsel Supervisor John Aldi, Warden Scott Erfe, Director Michael Bibens, Warden William Mulligan, Deputy Warden Mudano, and Commissary Service Manager Failla. Ruling Re: Mot. to Amend Compl. (Doc. No. 15) at 2. The claim against the new defendants was based on their denial of Allen's request to purchase a “fez, ” a headdress which is an essential component of the Moorish religion. Id. at 5. The court permitted the joinder of the ten new defendants and permitted the First Amendment free exercise claim, state constitutional claim, and RLUIPA claim to proceed against them. Id. at 8.

         On May 3, 2018, all twelve defendants moved to dismiss Allen's Amended Complaint (“Am. Compl.”) (Doc. No. 16) in its entirety on the ground that Allen failed to exhaust his administrative remedies before commencing suit. Motion to Dismiss (“Mot. to Dismiss”) (Doc. No. 30). With respect to the claims regarding the denial of the book, the defendants contend that Allen never completed the administrative remedy process as set forth by DOC Administrative Directive 9.6. Mem. of Law in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss (“Defs.' Mem.”) (Doc. No. 30-1) at 14-15. As for the claims regarding the fez, the defendants argue that Allen filed his motion to amend the complaint and join the claim against the ten new defendants before completing the administrative remedy process. Id. at 15-17. They attached as exhibits to their motions copies of the DOC Administrative Directives, the administrative remedy requests and appeals written and filed by Allen, an affidavit from Bennet, the Administrative Remedies Coordinator, attesting to the results of all administrative remedy requests and appeals filed by Allen, and records of all MWCI inmate grievances and appeals from June to August 2017. Defs.' Ex. 1-2, A-H (Doc. Nos. 30-2 - 30-3).

         In opposition to the motion, Allen does not dispute that he failed to fully comply with the DOC's administrative remedy procedure. See Obj. to Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss (“Pl.'s Obj.”) (Doc. No. 34) at 7; see also Am. Compl. at ¶¶ 18-20. Rather, he claims that the failures were the result of his “reasonable misunderstanding” of the procedure or an “innocent misunderstanding of the rules, ” and the defendants' refusal to answer his written requests prohibits them from raising an exhaustion defense. See Pl.'s Obj. at 5, 8-9. Allen attached to his written objection his own Affidavit, an Affidavit from another inmate stating that he witnessed Allen's attempt to exhaust his claims, and copies of his administrative grievances and appeals. Pl.'s Ex. 1-8 (Doc. No. 34). For the following reasons, the court grants the Motion to Dismiss.


         To survive a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when . . . plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant[s] [are] liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. The plausibility standard is not a probability requirement; the complaint must show, not merely allege, that the plaintiff is entitled to relief. See id.

         “Although all allegations contained in the complaint are assumed to be true, this tenet is ‘inapplicable to legal conclusions.'” LaMagna v. Brown, 474 Fed.Appx. 788, 789 (2d Cir. 2012) (quoting Ashcroft, 556 U.S. at 678). See also Amaker v. New York State Dept. of Corr. Servs., 435 Fed.Appx. 52, 54 (2d Cir. 2011) (same). Accordingly, the court is not “bound to accept conclusory allegations or legal conclusions masquerading as factual conclusions.” Faber v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 648 F.3d 98, 104 (2d Cir. 2011) (quoting Rolon v. Henneman, 517 F.3d 140, 149 (2d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted)). Consequently, “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Ashcroft, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

         “Where . . . the complaint was filed pro se, it must be construed liberally with ‘special solicitude' and interpreted to raise the strongest claims that it suggests.” Hogan v. Fischer, 738 F.3d 509, 515 (2d Cir. 2013) (quoting Hill v. Curcione, 657 F.3d 116, 122 (2d Cir. 2011)). Nevertheless, a pro se plaintiff's complaint still must “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Mancuso v. Hynes, 379 Fed.Appx. 60, 61 (2d Cir. 2010) (quoting Ashcroft, 556 U.S. at 678). Therefore, even in a pro se case, “threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Chavis v. Chappius, 618 F.3d 162, 170 (2d Cir. 2010) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         II. BACKGROUND[1]

         Allen is a devout Moorish-American and diligently practices his Moorish religion. Am. Compl. at ¶ 22. The staff at MWCI permits inmates of the Moorish Science religion to practice their faith on an individual basis with books, religious newspapers, audio recordings, and other items. Id. at ¶ 23. The staff also allows individual clergy visits on occasion. Id.

         Another Moorish-American inmate gave Allen a list of books on their religion but told him that one of the books, entitled Nationality, Birthrights, and Jurisprudence and written by Bandele El-Amin, was not approved for inmate access by the Media Review Committee (“MRC”) at MWCI. Am. Compl. at ¶ 24. Captain Kunkel is the head of the MRC, and Irizarry is a committee member. Id. at ¶ 29. Allen submitted a written inmate request to “C.T.O.” Perry inquiring about the book, and Perry responded by confirming that it was on the MRC's rejection list. Id. at ¶¶ 25-26; Pl.'s Ex. A (Doc. No. 1-1).

         Upon further investigation, Allen learned that the MRC did not approve the book because it “encourages and/or instructs on the commission of criminal activities.” Am. Compl. at ¶ 27. Offended by the MRC's reasoning, Allen filed a Level-1 grievance on June 8, 2017 claiming that banning the book abridged his right to freely practice his religion. Id. at ¶ 28; Pl.'s Ex. B (Doc. No. 1-2). However, Kunkel and Irizarry “ignored [Allen's] grievance” and failed to respond. Am. Compl. at ¶ 29-30. On July 10, 2017, Allen filed a Level-2 appeal of his grievance, which went unanswered. Pl.'s Ex. B.

         Shortly after learning about the rejection of the book, Allen submitted another written request to Reverend Williams, the Director of Religious Services for the DOC, seeking to purchase a fez for religious practice. Am. Compl. at ¶ 32. A fez is a headdress symbolizing spiritual and physical aspects of life and is an essential component of the Moorish religion. Id. at ¶ 34 n.2. On February 12, 2018, Allen received a written correspondence from Director Lewis stating that all ten members of the Religious Review Committee (“RRC”), Strom, O'Brasky, Williams, Lewis, Aldi, Erfe, Bibens, Mulligan, Mudano, and Failla, denied his request to purchase a fez “due to safety and security concerns.” Id. at ¶ 34. Allen filed a Level-1 grievance regarding the RRC's decision on February 22, 2018, arguing that the fez was an essential component of his religion and that their safety and security concerns were unfounded, but his grievance was denied. Id. at ¶¶ 35-36.

         III. ...

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