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Brown v. Semple

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

October 30, 2018

KENYA BROWN, Plaintiff,
v.
SCOTT SEMPLE, et al., Defendants.

          INITIAL REVIEW ORDER PURSUANT TO 28 U.S.C. § 1915A

          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Kenya Brown is a prisoner in the custody of the Connecticut Department of Correction (“DOC”) at Cheshire Correctional Institution. He has filed a complaint pro se and in forma pauperis under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Commissioner Scott Semple and Director of Security Antonio Santiago arising from DOC's rejection of Brown's request for a Wicca bible. For the following reasons, I will dismiss Brown's complaint in part, but will allow Brown's First Amendment Free Exercise claim for injunctive relief to proceed against Semple and Santiago at this time.

         Background

          The following facts are alleged in the complaint and are accepted as true only for purposes of this initial ruling. On April 19, 2018, Brown received a “Publication Rejection Notice” for a “bible” that was received at Cheshire Correctional Institution. Id. at 3 (¶¶ 1-2). The “bible” was a book entitled Witches' Craft: A Multidenominational Wicca Bible by Bruce Wilborn. Id. at 3 (¶ 2), 8, 12. According to the rejection notice, the book was rejected because it was “written in code” and therefore “jeopardizes a legitimate penological interest.” Id. at 3 (¶ 4), 8. Brown grieved the denial of the book, arguing that Wicca is an established religion, which is protected under the First Amendment, and that the “entire book” is not “written in code, ” as the rejection notice states. Id. at 3 (¶¶ 6-7), 10.

         On May 11, 2018, he received a written letter response from Director Santiago upholding the rejection of the book. Id. at 3 (¶ 8), 12. Santiago explained that DOC's Media Review Board had previously rejected the book in July 2014 because it was written in code. Id. at 12. Santiago noted that one chapter of the book entitled, “Runes, Symbols, and Rituals, ” contains “six different Rune Alphabets and their translations, ” and he explained that such codes and symbols could easily be used by inmates to circumvent security. Ibid. Santiago quoted one passage of the book in which “the author writes, ‘During early times, it was commonplace for witches to use secret magickal alphabets to write down prayers, invocation [sic], and other religious beliefs, thereby ensuring privacy from nonwitches.'” Ibid.

         According to Santiago, “[t]his type of information presents a security concern in any correction setting and therefore this publication will continue to be rejected.” Ibid. Santiago suggested that “[if] you wish to pursue the study of Wicca, the following publications have been approved by the Media Review Board: ‘Wicca, A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner' by Cunningham, and ‘Complete Idiot's Guide to Wicca and Witchcraft,' by Zimmerman.” Ibid.

         Brown disagrees with Santiago's decision, arguing that “there is no penological reason for not allowing the bible into a correctional facility other than inadequate religious equality, religious discrimination and [denial of] equal protection.” Id. at 3 (¶ 10). He contends that Santiago's authority to reject the book stems from “unconstitutional customs and practices” established by Commissioner Semple. Id. at 4 (¶ 15). He sues Semple in his official capacity only and Santiago in his individual capacity only, and he alleges two counts for violation of the First Amendment. Id. at 5.

         Discussion

          Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, the Court must review a prisoner's civil complaint against a governmental entity or governmental actors and “identify cognizable claims or dismiss the complaint, or any portion of the complaint, if the complaint-(1) is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted; or (2) seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.” If the prisoner is proceeding pro se, the allegations of the complaint must be read liberally to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest. See Tracy v. Freshwater, 623 F.3d 90, 101-02 (2d Cir. 2010).

         In recent years, the Supreme Court has set forth a threshold “plausibility” pleading standard for courts to evaluate the adequacy of allegations in federal court complaints. A complaint must allege enough facts-as distinct from legal conclusions-that give rise to plausible grounds for relief. See, e.g., Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Notwithstanding the rule of liberal interpretation of a pro se complaint, a pro se complaint may not survive dismissal if its factual allegations do not meet the basic plausibility standard. See, e.g., Fowlkes v. Ironworkers Local 40, 790 F.3d 378, 387 (2d Cir. 2015).

         Plaintiff contends that defendants violated his First Amendment freedom of religion because the rejection of Witches' Craft interfered with his “choice to worship in the arts of Wicca.” Doc. #1 at 5 (¶ 2). He also argues that, by rejecting the book, defendants “dictat[ed] to [him] which religion he has to worship, ” which constitutes discrimination. Id. (¶ 3). I construe these arguments as attempts to state claims under the First Amendment's Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses. To the extent he claims defendants discriminated against him on the basis of his Wiccan faith, I will construe Brown's complaint as attempting to claim a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. I conclude that while Brown's Free Exercise claim may proceed, he has not alleged enough facts to state a plausible claim for relief under either the Establishment Clause or the Equal Protection Clause.

         Sovereign Immunity

          Brown has sued Semple in his official capacity only. Doc. #1 at 1. Because Semple is an employee of the State of Connecticut, to the extent Brown has sued him for money damages, his claim is plainly barred by the Eleventh Amendment. See, e.g., Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 169 (1985). As such, I will dismiss any claim against Semple for damages, although Brown may maintain his suit against Semple for injunctive relief to the extent he validly alleges an ongoing constitutional violation. See Va. Office for Prot. & Advocacy v. Stewart, 563 U.S. 247, 254-55 (2011) (citing Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908)).

         Supervisory ...


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