United States District Court, D. Connecticut
CLARENCE E. BRAUN III Plaintiff,
CORRECTIONAL OFFICER STERNO, et al. Defendants.
INITIAL REVIEW ORDER
C. Hall United States District Judge
1, 2018, the plaintiff, Clarence E. Braun III
(“Braun”), an inmate currently housed at Osborn
Correctional Institution in Somers, Connecticut, filed a
complaint pro se pursuant to title 42, section 1983
of the United States Code against seven Connecticut
Department of Correction (“DOC”) employees for
violating his rights under the First Amendment Free Exercise
Clause, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons
Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1, and
the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause. Compl. (Doc. No.
1). The seven defendants are Correction Officers Sterno and
McMahon, Captains Valeriano and Nunez, Deputy Warden
Laffargue, Warden Erfe, and Commissioner Semple. Braun is
suing all seven defendants for monetary, injunctive, and
declaratory relief. Id. at ¶ 1. On June 8,
2018, Magistrate Judge William I. Garfinkel granted
Braun's motion to proceed in forma pauperis.
See Order (Doc. No. 6). For the following reasons,
his Complaint is dismissed in part.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
to section 1915A of title 28 of the United States Code, this
court must review prisoner civil complaints and dismiss any
portion of a 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. Although detailed allegations are not
required, a complaint must include sufficient facts to afford
the defendants fair notice of the claims and the grounds upon
which they are based and to demonstrate a right to relief.
Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56
(2007). Conclusory allegations are not sufficient.
Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). The
plaintiff must plead “enough facts to state a claim to
relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell
Atlantic, 550 U.S. at 570. Nevertheless, it is
well-established that “[p]ro 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)).
times relevant to his Complaint, Braun was incarcerated at
Cheshire Correctional Institution (“Cheshire”) in
Cheshire, Connecticut. Compl. at ¶ 5. Braun is a devout
Native American and was very close with his Elder and
spiritual advisor, Tom Flanders. Id. at ¶ 13.
The Native American religion requires Braun to carry with him
a sacred medicine bag containing objects related to his life
experiences and spiritual growth. Id. at ¶ 14.
Anything that goes into the medicine bag becomes part of
Braun's spiritual growth and was blessed by Flanders.
Id. at ¶ 15. Touching or opening the medicine
bag by anyone other than Braun, its keeper, is considered a
desecration of the bag and the spiritual items contained
therein. Id. at ¶ 16.
order to respect the religious practices of Native American
inmates, the DOC has adopted policies on how staff should
handle medicine bags and other sacred items. Id. at
¶ 17. DOC Administrative Directive 10.8, section 16,
states that “Native American medicine bags shall not
normally be handled by staff. In cases where a medicine bag
and/or its contents require examination by staff, staff shall
instruct the inmate possessing the medicine bag to empty its
contents on to a surface for inspection.” Id.
at ¶ 18; Pl.'s Ex. A (Doc. No. 1 at 27). In
practice, however, the staff member typically instructs the
inmate to place the medicine bag in a sealed envelope, which
is later inspected by the Elder. Compl. at ¶ 19.
Although an inmate may not refuse inspection of the medicine
bag, DOC staff are not to touch the bag or its contents
unless there is contraband present. Id. at ¶
22; Pl.'s Ex. B (Doc No. 1 at 30).
grieving the passing of a loved one, it is common practice in
the Native American religion for one to cut off a piece of
the deceased's hair and place it in his or her medicine
bag as a keepsake. Compl. at ¶ 23. When Braun's
former Elder and great-grandmother passed away, he placed
their hair in his medicine bag and had his new Elder bless
it. Id. at ¶ 24. These hairs became the most
precious and sacred items in his medicine bag. Id.
at ¶ 25.
28, 2016, Braun was removed from his housing unit at Cheshire
and placed in a restrictive housing unit (“RHU”)
pursuant to a disciplinary report. Id. at ¶ 26.
After arriving at RHU, Correction Officer Sterno packed and
inventoried Braun's property, including his medicine bag.
Id. at ¶¶ 27-28. Although he had no reason
to believe that the bag contained contraband, Sterno
personally opened the bag, dumped its contents on the floor,
and kicked and stomped on the items. Id. at ¶
28. Policy required Sterno to either secure the medicine bag
in an envelope for inspection by the Elder or instruct Braun
to empty the contents on a flat surface for visual
inspection. Id. at ¶ 29. Braun believes that
Sterno's actions were malicious because he has a disdain
for Native American inmates and is the subject of other
lawsuits with similar religious claims. Id. at
August 4, 2016, Braun was released from RHU and was
approached by another inmate, Richard Nau, who witnessed
Sterno dump the contents of the medicine bag on the floor and
desecrate them. Compl. ¶ 32; Pl.'s Ex. C (Doc No. 1
at 33). When he retrieved his medicine bag, Braun noticed
that several items were missing, including the hair from his
Elder and great-grandmother. Compl. at ¶ 33. He
immediately wrote to Correction Officer McMahon, Captain
Valeriano, and Warden Erfe stating that Sterno had violated
his religious freedoms and requesting video surveillance
footage from the incident. Id. at ¶ 34;
Pl.'s Ex. D (Doc. No. 1 at 35-37). He wrote a similar
request to Deputy Warden Laffargue four days later. Compl. at
¶ 35; Pl.'s Ex. E (Doc. No. 1 at 39).
August 10 and 11, Braun received written responses from
Laffargue and Valeriano directing his request for
surveillance footage to Captain Nunez for review. Compl. at
¶¶ 35-36; Pl.'s Ex. E. On August 12, plaintiff
wrote a request for the surveillance footage directly to
Nunez. Compl. at ¶ 39. He also spoke with Nunez on
August 17, about the incident with Sterno. Id. at
¶ 41. Nunez told him that he would speak with Sterno
about proper handling of medicine bags and preserve the video
from the incident. Id.
that day, Nunez sent a letter to Braun stating that his
request to preserve the surveillance footage from June 28 had
been “compromised” and “could not be
completed.” Id. at ¶ 42; Pl.'s Ex. F
(Doc. No. 1 at 41). Although Braun's request was timely
made, Nunez explained that the footage was “not
available” and there was no way to retrieve it. Compl.
at ¶¶ 42-43; Pl.'s Ex. F. Braun found
Nunez's response to be “vague, deceitful, and
misleading” because the request was timely made and
Nunez did not explain why the footage was unavailable. Compl.
at ¶¶ 44-45.
August 19, at approximately 5:00 p.m., Sterno entered
Braun's cell and conducted a
“shakedown.” Id. at ¶ 46. Braun asked
Sterno about the packing of his property on June 28, and
Sterno admitted to dumping the contents of his medicine bag
on the floor and stomping and kicking the items in disarray.
Id. Sterno also mentioned that Nunez had disciplined
him for his actions. Id. Based on his conversation
with Sterno, Braun believed that the “shakedown”
of his cell was retaliation for his complaints against
Sterno. Id. at ¶ 47.
August 22, Braun wrote a response to Nunez's letter
asking for clarification on why his request for surveillance
footage was “compromised” and “not
available.” Compl. at ¶ 48; Pl.'s Ex. 1 (Doc.
No. 1 at 46). Braun stated that the footage should have been
preserved and that his request was made within the required
thirty days of the incident. Compl. at ¶ 48; Pl.'s
Ex. 1. Nunez did not respond to Braun's letter. Compl. at
¶ 48. Braun believes that Nunez conspired with McMahon,
Valeriano, Erfe, and Laffargue “to deliberately fail to
preserve . . . and/or destroy” the footage.
Id. at ¶ 49. He wrote to Commissioner Semple
regarding the incident and the failure to preserve the
footage, but Semple did not respond. Id. at ¶
Valeriano, Laffargue, Erfe, and Semple are all defendants in
another lawsuit filed by another Native American inmate at
Cheshire regarding religious freedom violations. Id.
at ¶ 52; Michalski v. Semple, No. 3:16-cv-2039
(VAB). As a result of the alleged violations in this case,
Braun suffers from terrifying nightmares of different
ancestors banishing him and cutting off his hair and scalp,
which are the most embarrassing and disgraceful actions in
the Native American culture. Compl. at ¶ 57. These
nightmares cause Braun to suffer from insomnia, tinnitus, and
severe headaches. Id.