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Ellis v. Lassiter

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

November 5, 2019

SAMUEL ELLIS, Plaintiff,
KENNETH LASSITER, et al., Defendants.



         On March 2, 2018, Samuel Ellis ("plaintiff'), a state inmate proceeding pro se and without prepayment offees, filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See [D.E. 1, 2, 7]. The court allowed the action to proceed, but denied plaintiffs request for injunctive relief [D.E. 8]. Plaintiff moved for, among other things, leave to file an amended complaint [D.E. 18]. The court granted plaintiff leave to amend [D.E. 22]. On December 11, 2018, plaintiff filed an amended complaint [D.E. 23].

         Plaintiffs amended complaint is subject to initial review under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. Although the court allowed plaintiffs original complaint to proceed, the court is not precluded from conducting such initial review again. See 28 U.S.C. §1915(e)(2) ("the court shall dismiss the case at any time if the court determines that... (B) the action or appeal-(i) is frivolous or malicious; (ii) fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted; or (iii) seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief") (emphasis added). Accordingly, the court conducts further initial review on plaintiff s earlier filings. For the reasons discussed below, the court dismisses the action.

         Legal Standard:

         When a prisoner seeks relief in a civil action from a governmental entity or officer, a court must dismiss the complaint if it is "frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted." 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a), (b)(1). A frivolous case "lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact." Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989). Legally frivolous claims are "based on an indisputably meritless legal theory and include claims of infringement of a legal interest which clearly does not exist." Adams v. Rice, 40 F.3d 72, 75 (4th Cir. 1994) (quotations omitted). Factually frivolous claims lack an "arguable basis" in fact. Neitzke. 490 U.S. at 325.

         The standard used to evaluate the sufficiency of a pleading is flexible, and a pro se complaint, "however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (per curiam) (quotation omitted). Erickson. however, does not undermine the "requirement that a pleading contain 'more than labels and conclusions.'" Giarratano v. Johnson, 521 F.3d298.304n.5 (4thCir. 2008)(quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)); see Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 677-83 (2009).

         "To state a claim under [section] 1983, a plaintiff must allege the violation of a right secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States, and must show that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law." West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); Philips v. Pitt Cnty. Mem'l Hosp., 572 F.3d 176, 180 (4th Cir. 2009). A section 1983 plaintiff also must allege the personal involvement of a defendant. See Iqbal. 556 U.S. at 676; Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 691-92 (1978); Wright v. Collins, 766 F.2d 841, 850 (4th Cir. 1985).

         Plaintiffs Amended Complaint:

         Plaintiffs amended complaint again generally alleges that state actors with North Carolina Department of Public Safety ("DPS") interfered with his practice of Wicca at Pender Correctional Institution ("Pender"), in violation of the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 ("RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc to 2000cc-5. See Am. Compl. [D.E. 23] at ¶l. Plaintiff again names as defendants: DPS Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter ("Lassiter"); DPS Director of Chaplaincy Services Betty Brown ("Brown"); and Pender Superintendent Bryan Wells ("Wells"). Id. at ¶¶ 9-11. Plaintiff now also seeks to add as defendants the following employees at Pender: Sergeant James ("James"); Correctional Officer ("CO") Trantham ("Trahtham"); and CO Hernandez ("Hernandez"). Id. at ¶¶ 12-14.

         Plaintiff reiterates many of the claims from his initial complaint. Compare Am. Compl. [D.E. 23] at ¶¶ 20-28, wjth Compl. [D.E. 1] at ¶¶ 11-22. Plaintiff again alleges that a "Wiccan Bible" ("the book") was confiscated by Pender mail-room staff.[1] Am. Compl. [D.E. 23] at ¶¶20-23. Plaintiff also again alleges that DPS policies discriminate against Wicca practitioners. Id. at ¶¶ 24-28. Plaintiff initially alleged that Wiccans are only allowed eight services per year and that DPS does not allow Wiccans to celebrate "monthly Esbats" with the new and full moons. See Compl. [D.E. 1] at ¶¶16-18. In his amended complaint, by contrast, plaintiff admits that, after he filed this action, Pender policy subsequently was amended to officially allow the observation of Wiccan "Esbats," but he asserts such services had not yet occurred. Am. Compl. [D.E. 23] at ¶ 24. Plaintiff again contends that, although Wicca is a "nature based" religion, DPS has denied specific ceremonial items or required that substituted items be a photograph of the item or made from "synthetic materials such as Styrofoam." Id. at ¶25. Plaintiff again alleges that, unlike other faith groups, Wiccan prisoners are denied weekly religious "study time." Id. at ¶26. Plaintiff further alleges that another DPS policy-suspending services for religious groups without an "outside volunteer" leader and six persons in attendance-is arbitrary and discriminatory because, although an "inmate faith helper" may substitute when an "outside volunteer" is unavailable, becoming an "inmate faith helper" makes that individual "a 'target' for frivolous write-ups," and because the hypothetical absence of the "inmate faith helper" would lead to cancellation of services. Id. at ¶27. Plaintiff again contends that finding an "outside volunteer" for Wiccan services also is difficult "because of the harassment and prejudices they are subjected to by NCDPS staff." Id. at ¶28.

         Plaintiff now also contends that he was the victim of retaliation for filing this action. Plaintiff alleges that, after an infraction on June 3, 2018, plaintiff was transferred to protective housing. Id. at ¶¶ 29-30, 33. When Trantham delivered plaintiffs property to protective housing, various personal items, including legal documents and religious property, were damaged or missing. Id. at ¶¶ 29-30. Plaintiff alleges that James, Trantham, and Hernandez processed his property on that date. Id. at ¶ 31. When plaintiff later sought the return of the missing property, he "was told his art supplies were 'tied up in litigation' since [plaintiff] filed a lawsuit." Id. at ¶ 34. Plaintiff asserts that, shortly after this action was allowed to proceed, plaintiffs "minor write-up" on April 11, 2018, for "having a couple of over-the-counter cold pills in the same bottle with his acid reflux medication, Pepcid, and 'white out'" was "brought to bear." Id. at ¶ 32. Plaintiff alleges prisoners ordinarily are not punished so distant in time from the infraction date. Id.

         Plaintiff seeks the following relief: a declaration that defendants Lassiter, Brown, and Wells violated the First Amendment and RLUIPA and substantially burdened plaintiffs religious practice by denying him the book; a declaration that defendants Wells, James, Trantham, and Hernandez violated plaintiffs constitutional rights "by the willful and deliberate damage and loss of plaintiff s personal, legal, and religious property in retaliation for plaintiffs exercising his right to access the courts"; an injunction ordering that the book be removed from the DPS banned publication list and be delivered to plaintiff; an injunction ordering defendants Lassiter, Brown, and Wells to implement new policy that mirrors the Wiccan religious policies of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and abolish DPS policies as to the "faith-group helper" and "six-person attendance" requirements; an injunction allowing Wiccan inmates to possess certain personal religious property, directing chaplaincy services to supply corporate religious items, and provision of "the 'feast meal' at the conclusion of the eight seasonal Sabbats"; an "injunction requiring that a permanent outdoor 'circle' and 'fire pit' be constructed and that Wiccan services be conducted outdoors unless inclement weather causes the service to be held indoors" and requiring "the institution's chaplaincy service [to] provide grape juice and some form of plain sweet cake or sweet bread for the 'wine & cake' ritual which is a part of every Wiccan Sabbat and Esbat"; an injunction ordering defendants Wells, James, Trantham, and Hernandez to replace plaintiffs court transcripts; compensatory damages for the loss of personal, legal, and religious property; and attorneys fees. Id. at 13-16.


         Here, plaintiffs contentions are either moot or fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Due to plaintiffs intervening transfer to Albemarle Correctional Institution, see [D.E. 24], plaintiffs specific claims seeking declaratory and injunctive relief premised on purported RLUIPA and First Amendment violations at Pender, such as the lack of religious "study time" for Wiccan inmates, see Am. Compl. [D.E. 23] at ¶ 26, appear to be moot. See Rendelman v. Rouse,569 F.3d 182, 186 (4th Cir. 2009) ("[A]s a general rule, a prisoner's transfer or release from a particular prison moots his claims for injunctive and declaratory relief with respect to his incarceration there." (citation omitted); Taylor v. Rogers,781 F.2d 1047, 1048 n.l (4th Cir. 1986) (a prisoner's transfer mooted his request for declaratory and injunctive relief but not as to monetary damages). Because there is no indication that plaintiff will be returned to Pender, and because plaintiff has not alleged a "real and immediate threat" of repetition of the alleged ...

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