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Ashby v. Semple

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 26, 2019

LAZALE ASHBY, Plaintiff,


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

         Plaintiff Lazale Ashby, a convicted prisoner currently incarcerated at the Northern Correctional Institution ("Northern") in Somers, Connecticut, has filed a civil rights action pro se pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against nine Connecticut Department of Correction ("DOC") officials: former Commissioner Scott Semple, Commissioner Rollin Cook, Director William Murphy, Director Charles Williams, former Warden Nick Rodriguez, District Administrator Murphy, Chaplain Wright, Warden Giuliana Mudano, and Captain Gregorio Robles (collectively, "the Defendants"). Doc. 1 (Complaint) ¶¶ 8-16. Ashby claims that the Defendants violated his Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection of the laws, his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1. Id. ¶¶ 66-70. He seeks monetary, injunctive, and declaratory relief. Id. at 4, 15-17. On August 1, 2019, Magistrate Judge William I. Garfinkel granted Ashby's motion to proceed in forma pauperis. Doc. 5.

         The Court now reviews Ashby's Complaint to determine whether his claims may proceed under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. For the following reasons, the Complaint is DISMISSED IN PART.


         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, the Court must review a prisoner's civil complaint and dismiss any portion that "(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." 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)).[1] "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. This plausibility standard is not a "probability requirement, " but imposes a standard higher than "a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id.

         In undertaking this analysis, the Court must "draw all reasonable inferences in [the plaintiff's] favor, assume all well-pleaded factual allegations to be true, and determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Faber v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 648 F.3d 98, 104 (2d Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, the Court is "not bound to accept conclusory allegations or legal conclusions masquerading as factual conclusions, " id., and "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do, " Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Consequently, "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). Ultimately, "[d]etermining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will . . . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. at 679.

         With 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 F.App'x 24, 26 (2d Cir. 2017) (quoting Triestman v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 470 F.3d 471, 474 (2d Cir. 2006) (per curiam)). See also Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) ("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.'" (internal citations omitted)). This liberal approach, however, does not exempt pro se litigants from the minimum pleading requirements described above: A pro se plaintiff's complaint still must "'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Mancuso v. Hynes, 379 F.App'x 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) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted), and the Court may not "invent factual allegations" that the plaintiff has not pleaded, id.


         Ashby describes his religion as Akemety Shefe Pohrul[2] (Kemetic). Pl.'s Ex. G (Doc. 1 at 29). On March 3, 2018, Ashby wrote a letter to Director Williams requesting approval for a religious diet, wardrobe, and accessories, but received no response. Doc. 1 ¶¶ 18-19. On March 29, he wrote to the food services kitchen supervisor requesting a vegan diet in accordance with his religious requirements. Id. at ¶ 20; Pl.'s Ex. A (Doc. 1 at 19). The supervisor later informed him that food services can only approve a regular diet or common fare meal plan, and that any other special diets must be approved by the medical unit or religious services department. Pl.'s Ex. A. Ashby sent a second written request to Director Williams on April 13 about his religious diet, wardrobe, and accessories, but again did not receive a response. Doc. 1 ¶¶ 22-23.

         On June 4, 2018, Ashby filed a Level-1 administrative grievance regarding the lack of responses from Williams. Doc. 1 ¶ 24; Pl.'s Ex. B (Doc. 1 at 20). In the grievance, Ashby wrote a list of the items he needed to comply with his religion, including a "vegan diet, yoga mat, Daishiki, Mala Beans, Frankincense Oil, " and various other wardrobe accessories. Pl.'s Ex. B. He contended that the lack of a vegan diet option in DOC facilities "forces [him] to modify his religious behavior and violate [his] religious beliefs." Id. Four days later, he met with Director Williams and Chaplain Wright regarding his requests. Doc. 1 ¶¶ 25-26. Williams agreed to provide Ashby with "a kemetic vegan diet and also agreed to approve [his] necessary wardrobe and accessories."[3] Id. ¶ 27. On July 27, Warden Rodriguez denied his Level-1 grievance based on Williams' decision to develop a plant-based diet by September 15, 2018, and because Ashby failed to request the other religious items on a proper religious order request form. Id. ¶ 28; Pl.'s Ex. B. Ashby filed a Level-2 appeal from Rodriguez's decision but did not receive a response. Doc. 1 ¶ 29.

         On September 7, 2018, Ashby submitted a religious order request form to Chaplain Wright with instructions to deliver it to Director Williams. Doc. 1 ¶ 30. The order listed four specific concerns regarding his diet: (1) the protein requirements of the approved meal; (2) that his meals must be entirely plant-based and may not contain any sauces, gravies, or seasonings; (3) the meals may not contain any fermented foods, and any soy used must be derived from "soy sprout or actual soybean"; and (4) the food tray must be wrapped "to avoid any third party issues." Pl.'s Ex. D (Doc. 1 at p.23). Director Williams responded to Ashby's four concerns as follows:

(1) Before any diet plan is approved a nutritionist must approve it for all these concerns.
(2) At this time I do not know what the meals plans will be but it will be all plant based.
(3) I am not aware of any fermented foods being part of the diet. Soy is an important source of protein so I am sure it will be used in some ways.
(4) We do not normally wrap the food in plastic wrap. I am not sure at all what you mean by "third party issues" but I am sure you will not have any problems.

Pl.'s Ex. E (Doc. 1 at 24). Williams' response did not satisfy Ashby's concerns. Doc 1, ¶ 33.

         Ashby waited until October 1, 2018, but no religious diet had been approved. Id. ¶ 34. On November 30, Chaplain Wright informed him that a "non-animal diet" had been approved for him and that he should write to the kitchen staff at Northern. Id. ¶ 35. Thereafter, on January 14, 2019, Ashby wrote to the kitchen supervisor at Northern requesting that he be placed on the "non-animal diet" for religious purposes. Id. ¶ 36. The staff approved his request and provided him with a "non-animal diet" menu. Id. ¶ 37; Pl.'s Ex. F (Doc. 1 at pp. 25-28). After reviewing the menu, however, Ashby learned that the "non-animal diet" did not satisfy his religious dietary requirements. Id. ¶ 38.

         On January 14 and 15, 2019, Ashby wrote to Director Williams explaining his concerns with the "non-animal diet" menu and again requesting a religious wardrobe and accessories from an outside vendor. Doc. 1 ¶¶ 39-40; Pl.'s Exs. G, H (Doc. 1 at 29-30). Specifically, he requested an all-black Daishiki pant suit, yoga mat/rug, four-ounce bottle of Frankincense oil, and black mud-cloth Kufi from the "African Village Market." Pl.'s Ex. G. With respect to the "non-animal diet, " Ashby wrote that his religion required an organic, raw, and "kemetic" vegan diet, and that he cannot eat gravies, sauces, oils, dressings or seasonings that are listed on the "non-animal diet" menu. Pl.'s Ex. H. Ashby also complained about the orange beverage served with dinner and the egg-free dinner. Id.

         Days later, on January 17, Ashby filed another Level-1 grievance regarding Williams' denial of his religious diet. Doc. 1 ¶ 41; Pl.'s Ex. I (Doc. 1 at 31). Ashby wrote that Williams had "agreed to develop a religious diet for [him]" and that the "non-animal diet" that had been approved for him did not satisfy his religious requirements. Pl.'s Ex. I. The next day, Ashby wrote a second letter to Williams challenging the newly instituted Dayroom Feeding Policy in the 1-West Unit at Northern. Doc. 1 ¶ 42; Pl.'s Ex. K (Doc. 1 at 33). Among other provisions, the policy stated that, aside from three other inmates, Breton, Campbell, and Cobb, all inmates in the 1-West Unit must consume their meals in the dayroom and would not be given meal trays in their cells. Pl.'s Ex. J (Doc. 1 at 32). In his letter to Williams, Ashby contended that the policy infringed on his ability to practice his religion, which required him to eat on the floor in a "Lotus" position only at 12:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m., say a blessing before eating, and wash his hands. Doc. 1 ¶ 42; Pl.'s Ex. K. Ashby also filed a Level-1 grievance on January 22, challenging the new policy. Doc. 1 ¶ 43; Pl.'s Ex. L (Doc. 1 at p.34).

         On January 30, Ashby received a response from Williams regarding his second request for religious attire and accessories. Doc. 1, ¶ 44; Pl.'s Ex. M (Doc. 1 p.35). Williams stated that he could not locate the outside vendor that Ashby had referenced. ...

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