United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS
Charles S. Haight, Jr. Senior United States District Judge
plaintiff, Ali Richard, currently incarcerated at
MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield,
Connecticut, commenced this civil rights action against
defendants 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 Officer Norton. The first ten
defendants are members of the Religious Review Committee
(“the Committee defendants”). By Initial Review
Order filed November 19, 2018, familiarity with which is
assumed, the Court dismissed the Amended Complaint in part.
Doc. 8. The remaining claims are RLUIPA claims against
all defendants relating to Plaintiff's purchase of a fez
and a religious book; First Amendment Free Exercise Clause,
First Amendment Establishment Clause, and Fourteenth
Amendment Equal Protection Clause claims against the
Committee defendants relating to Plaintiff's request to
purchase a fez; and First Amendment Free Exercise Clause and
federal and state law retaliation claims against defendants
Blanchard, White and Norton (“the Mailroom
defendants”) relating to Plaintiff's purchase of a
religious book. Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss
plaintiff's First Amendment claims for damages against
the Committee defendants on the ground that they are
protected by qualified immunity, and plaintiff's claim
against the Mailroom defendants under Article first, section
14 of the Connecticut Constitution. For the reasons that
follow, Defendants' motion is granted.
relevant factual allegations from Plaintiff's Amended
Complaint, as recounted in the Initial Review Order in the
light most favorable to Plaintiff, are recited below.
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.
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.”
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 contends that he has been unable to freely
and fully practice his religion. Id. ¶ 27.
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
Plaintiff's 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.
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. Plaintiff appealed the decision and, on July 9,
2018, the Director of Security at MacDougall-Walker informed
him that the book had been re-evaluated 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 allegedly in retaliation for the Plaintiff
previous complaints regarding mail issues, falsely claiming
that they did not receive the Plaintiff's appeal within
the time permitted for filing. Id. ¶¶
Standard of Review
withstand a motion to dismiss filed pursuant to 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 the
plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to
draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable
for the misconduct alleged.” Id. Although
detailed factual allegations are not required, Keller v.
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., 751 F.3d 64, 70 (2d Cir.
2014), mere “labels and conclusions” or a
“formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of
action” are insufficient, Twombly, 550 U.S. at
555. Plaintiff must, at a minimum, “plead[ ] 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. In
determining whether a plaintiff has met this standard, the
Court must accept all well-pleaded allegations as true and
draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to
the nonmoving party. In re NYSE Specialists Sec.
Litig., 503 F.3d 89, 95 (2d Cir. 2007).
respect to pro se litigants, it is well-established
that "[p]ro se submissions are
reviewed with special solicitude, and '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)
(quoting Triestman v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 470
F.3d 471, 474 (2d Cir. 2006)). See also Sykes v. Bank of
Am., 723 F.3d 399, 403 (2d Cir. 2013) (same); Tracy
v. Freshwater, 623 F.3d 90, 101-02 (2d Cir. 2010)
(discussing special rules of solicitude for pro se
litigants); 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[ ]."). Despite being subject to liberal
interpretation, 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 Iqbal, 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).
are three remaining groups of claims: RLUIPA claims relating
to Plaintiff's purchase of a fez and a religious book
against all Defendants; First Amendment First Amendment
Establishment Clause, and Fourteenth Amendment Equal
Protection Clause claims against the Committee defendants in
connection with Plaintiff's request to purchase a fez;
and First Amendment Free Exercise Clause and federal and
state law ...