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Richard v. Strom

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

November 19, 2018

ALI RICHARD, Plaintiff,


          Charles S. Haight, Jr., Senior United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Ali Richard, currently incarcerated at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution (“MacDougall-Walker”) in Suffield, Connecticut, has commenced this action pro se pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff names thirteen officials at MacDougall-Walker as Defendants in their individual and official capacities: Steven R. Strom, Nancy O'Braskey, Reverend Williams, Karl Lewis, John Aldi, Scott Erfe, Michael Bibens, William Mulligan, Deputy Warden Mudano, Commissary Service Manager Failla, Counselor Supervisor Blanchard, Correctional Officer White, and Mailroom Personnel Norton. Plaintiff contends that Defendants violated his right to freely exercise his religion, discriminated against him on the basis of his religion, denied him equal protection of the laws, deprived him of property in violation of due process, and retaliated against him. He seeks declaratory and injunctive relief from the Defendants in their official capacities and monetary relief from the Defendants in their individual capacities. [See Doc. 6 at ¶ 1.]

         Richard's motion to proceed in forma pauperis was granted on August 31, 2018. [See Doc. 5.] Richard filed an Amended Complaint as a matter of course on September 18, 2018 (the “Amended Complaint”). [See Doc. 6.] The Court now reviews Richard's Amended Complaint to determine whether his claims may proceed under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. For the reasons set forth below, the Court dismisses Plaintiffs Amended Complaint in part.

         I. Standard of Review

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, the Court must review a prisoner's civil complaint against governmental actors and “dismiss . . . any portion of the complaint [that] is frivolous, malicious, or 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.” See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1)-(2). Although highly detailed allegations are not required, the complaint “must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim 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)); see also Allco Fin. Ltd. v. Klee, 861 F.3d 82, 94 (2d Cir. 2017). “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 678. However, 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) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Accordingly, a Complaint “that offers ‘labels and conclusions' or ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

         With respect to pro se litigants, it is well-established that pro se pleadings “must be construed liberally and interpreted to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest.” Matheson v. Deutsche Bank Nat'l Tr. Co., 706 Fed.Appx. 24, 26 (2d Cir. 2017) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also Boykin v. KeyCorp., 521 F.3d 202, 214 (2d Cir. 2008) (“‘A document filed pro se is to be liberally construed and a pro se complaint, however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.'” (quoting Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007))); Abbas v. Dixon, 480 F.3d 636, 639 (2d Cir. 2007) (“In reviewing a pro se complaint, the court must assume the truth of the allegations, and interpret them liberally to “raise the strongest arguments [they] suggest[].”). Even in a pro se filing, however, “threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice, ” nor may the Court “invent factual allegations” that the plaintiff has not pleaded. Chavis v. Chappius, 618 F.3d 162, 170 (2d Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         II. Plaintiff's Allegations

         The factual allegations contained in Plaintiff's complaint are recounted below, recited in the light most favorable to Plaintiff.

         Plaintiff is a Moorish-American and diligently practices his Moorish religion. [Doc. 6 ¶ 20.] The staff at MacDougall-Walker permit inmates of the Moorish Science religion to practice their faith individually using books, religious newspapers, audio recordings, and other items. [Id. ¶ 21.]

         On or about December 14, 2017, Plaintiff submitted a written request to Defendant Williams, the Director of Religious Services for the Department of Correction, seeking to purchase a fez to be used during religious practice. [Id. ¶ 22.] In the Moorish religion, a fez is believed to symbolize spiritual and physical aspects of life and to provide spiritual protection. [Id. ¶ 23.] It is an “essential component of the Moorish religion and a requirement for all Moorish practitioners.” [Id.]

         On February 5, 2018, Plaintiff received written notification from Defendant Lewis that all ten members of the Religious Review Committee (the “Committee”)-Defendants Strom, O'Braskey, Williams, Lewis, Aldi, Erfe, Bibens, Mulligan, Mudano, and Failla (the “Committee Defendants”)-had denied his request to purchase the fez due to safety and security concerns. [Id. ¶ 24.] Plaintiff appealed the decision, arguing that the fez is an essential component of his religion and that the security concerns were unfounded. [Id. ¶ 25.] Plaintiff also noted that the Committee had previously approved requests from Nation of Islam and Five Percenter inmates to purchase crowns, which were similar to the fez in design. [Id.] The appeal was denied. [Doc. 6 ¶ 26.] As a result, Plaintiff has been unable to freely and fully practice his religion. [Id. ¶ 27.]

         During this time, Plaintiff had been communicating with K. Bin Bey, the Grand Mufti of the Moorish Science Temple of America. [Id. ¶ 28.] On February 16, 2018, Plaintiff received a letter from the Grand Mufti. [Id. ¶ 29.] Mailroom personnel White and Norton had torn the return address from the envelope. [Id. ¶¶ 29, 32.] Plaintiff immediately reported the issue to the unit officer delivering the mail and submitted a written informal complaint to the deputy warden. [Id. ¶ 30.] Defendant Blanchard, the mailroom supervisor, responded to Plaintiffs complaint and assured him that it would not happen again. [Id. ¶ 31.] On March 23, 2018, Plaintiff received another letter from the Grand Mufti. [Id. ¶ 33.] Again, the return address had been torn off the envelope. [Id.] Plaintiff filed a grievance which was denied initially and on appeal. [Id. ¶¶ 34-35.]

         Plaintiff also alleges that he ordered a book entitled “Nationality, Birthrights, and Jurisprudence” in January 2018. [Doc. 6 ¶ 39.] The book “explains the legal process for becoming a Moorish-american, which the plaintiff must claim as his nationality in order to be recognized as a member of the Moorish Science Temple of America.” [Id. ¶ 40.] Staff at MacDougall-Walker did not permit the book to enter the facility, telling the Plaintiff that the Media Review Committee had placed the book on the rejection list on July 21, 2015 based on safety and security concerns. [Id. ¶ 41; id. at 28.] Plaintiff appealed the decision and, on July 9, 2018, the Director of Security at MacDougall-Walker informed him that the book had been reevaluated and the Media Review Committee's prior rejection overturned. [Id. ¶¶ 42-43.] However, Defendants Blanchard, White and Norton (the “Mailroom Defendants”) returned the book to the vendor in retaliation for the plaintiff previous complaints regarding mail issues, falsely claiming that they did not receive the plaintiffs appeal within the time permitted for filing. [Id. ¶¶ 44-45.]

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff includes three counts in his Amended Complaint. In the first count, Plaintiff includes all federal constitutional claims. He contends that all Defendants violated his right to freely practice his religion under the Free Exercise Clause and Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and discriminated against him because of his religion in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause. He also alleges that the Mailroom Defendants deprived him of his religious book without affording him due process in violation of the Fifth Amendment, and retaliated against him for filing a grievance in violation of his rights under the First Amendment. In the second count, Plaintiff contends that all Defendants violated his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-2 by interfering with his purchase of the book and fez and by removing the return address from his correspondence with the Grand Mufti. In the third count the plaintiff asserts state law claims against all Defendants for religious discrimination and equal protection violations under Article First §§ 3 and 20 of the Connecticut Constitution, and against the Mailroom Defendants for due process and free speech violations under Article First §§ 8 and 14 of the Connecticut Constitution.

         For the reasons discussed below, the Court will allow Plaintiffs Free Exercise and RLUIPA claims to proceed against all Defendants with respect to Plaintiffs attempts to procure a fez and religious book. It will also permit Plaintiffs Establishment Clause and Equal Protection claims to proceed against the Committee Defendants, and his retaliation claims under the U.S. and Connecticut Constitutions to proceed against the Mailroom Defendants. However, the Court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiffs claims under Article First §§ 3, 8, and 20 of the Connecticut Constitution. Additionally, Plaintiffs Equal Protection, Establishment Clause, and due process claims against the Mailroom Defendants, as well as all claims arising out of the Mailroom Defendants' purported removal of a return mailing address, will be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.

         A. First Amendment Free Exercise Claims Against All Defendants

         Plaintiff argues that Defendants' denial of permission to purchase a fez, interference with his purchase of a religious book, and removal of the return address from a letter from the Grand Mufti each violates his right to free exercise of his religion under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. “Inmates clearly retain protections afforded by the First Amendment, including its directive that no law shall prohibit the free exercise of religion.” O'Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 283 U.S. 342, 348 (1987); see also Ford v. McGinnis, 352 F.3d 582, 588 (2d Cir. 2003) (“Prisoners have long been understood to retain some measure of the constitutional protection afforded by the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause.”). But a prisoner's right to exercise his religion is not absolute, and must be balanced against “the interests of prison officials charged with complex duties arising from administration of the penal system.” Id. (quoting Benjamin v. Coughlin, 905 F.2d 571, 574 (2d Cir. 1990)). Accordingly, a prisoner's free exercise claim must be judged “under a ‘reasonableness' test less restrictive than that ordinarily applied: a regulation that burdens a protected right passes constitutional muster if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.” Salahuddin v. Goord, 467 F.3d 263, 274 (2d Cir. 2006) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         To state a First Amendment free exercise claim, Plaintiff “must make a threshold showing that ‘the disputed conduct substantially burden[ed] his sincerely held religious beliefs.'” Washington v. Gonyea, 538 Fed.Appx. 23, 26 (2d Cir. 2013) (quoting Salahuddin, 467 F.3d at 274-75).[1] Specifically, he must allege facts showing that he sincerely holds a particular belief, that the belief is religious in nature, and that the challenged action substantially burdened his exercise of that belief. See Ford, 352 F.3d at 588-91. A belief is substantially burdened where the state has “put[] substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs.” Forde v. Zickefoose, 612 F.Supp.2d 171, 177 (D. Conn. 2009) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). In considering whether a prisoner has made the required showing, the court does not “evaluate the objective reasonableness of the prisoner's belief but considers only whether the prisoner “sincerely holds a particular belief and whether the belief is religious in nature.” Ford, 352 F.3d at 590.

         Plaintiff alleges that he is a “devout Moorish-american” [sic] and “diligently practices his Moorish religion, ” including through correspondence with a Moorish religious leader. [Doc. 6 ¶ 20.] Plaintiff further alleges that a fez is believed to provide spiritual protection, is an essential component of the Moorish religion, and is a requirement for all Moorish practitioners. [Id. ¶ 23.] He also alleges that Nationality, Birthrights, and Jurisprudence-the book that mail personnel returned to the vendor-“explained] the legal process for becoming a Moorish-american, ” which the Plaintiff was required to claim as his nationality in order to be recognized as a member of the Moorish Science Temple of America. [Id. ¶ 40.] These allegations, taken together and construed liberally, state a plausible claim that Plaintiff sincerely held a religious belief that was substantially burdened by the Committee's denial of his request to purchase a fez and, subsequently, by the Mailroom Defendants' interference with his purchase of an important religious book.

         There is no basis, however, for Plaintiff's Free Exercise claim against the Mailroom Defendants for removal of the return address on two letters from the Grand Mufti. Plaintiff acknowledges that he contacted the Grand Mufti both prior and subsequent to removal of the return addresses. It therefore cannot be reasonably inferred-nor does Plaintiff allege-that the lack of a return address on the envelope interfered with or otherwise burdened his religious practice. Plaintiff's ...

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