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Gibson v. Yackeren

United States District Court, Second Circuit

June 30, 2013

DANA GIBSON, Plaintiff,


WILLIAM M. SKRETNY, Chief District Judge.

1. Pro se Plaintiff, Dana Gibson, was, at all times relevant to this action, an inmate in the custody of the New York Department of Corrections and Community Service ("DOCCS") at the Attica Correctional Facility. He brings this action against three employees of that facility alleging that they violated his rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Specifically, he asserts that: (1) Defendant Keith Karnofsky, the Jewish chaplain of the facility, violated his rights under the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc, by failing to change Gibson's religious designation to Judaism; (2) Defendant Christi Robinson, the "Corrections Captain of Attica, " deprived Gibson due process of law by failing to provide a fair and impartial disciplinary hearing and by failing to provide him adequate assistance at that hearing; and last (3) Defendant Craig Yackeren, a corrections officer, violated Gibson's rights under the Eighth Amendment when he grabbed Gibson's genitals in the course of a body search.

Defendants move to dismiss the complaint. For the following reasons, that motion is granted in part and denied part.

2. Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows dismissal of a complaint for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Federal pleading standards are generally not stringent: Rule 8 requires only a short and plain statement of a claim. Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). But the plain statement must "possess enough heft to show that the pleader is entitled to relief." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1966, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007).

When determining whether a complaint states a claim, the court must construe it liberally, accept all factual allegations as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. ATSI Communications, Inc. v. Shaar Fund, Ltd. , 493 F.3d 87, 98 (2d Cir. 2007). Legal conclusions, however, are not afforded the same presumption of truthfulness. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 677, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) ("The tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.").

"To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Id. at 678 (quoting Twombly , 550 U.S. at 570). Labels, conclusions, or a "formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Twombly , 550 U.S. at 555. Facial plausibility exists when the facts alleged allow for a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct charged. Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 678. The plausibility standard is not, however, a probability requirement: the pleading must show, not merely allege, that the pleader is entitled to relief. Id. at 678; Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Well-pleaded allegations must nudge the claim "across the line from conceivable to plausible." Twombly , 550 U.S. at 570.

Cognizant of the distinct disadvantage that pro se litigants face, this Court has read Plaintiff's submissions carefully and liberally, and has interpreted them to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest. See Haines v. Kerner , 404 U.S. 519, 520, 92 S.Ct. 594, 30 L.Ed.2d 652 (1972); Burgos v. Hopkins , 14 F.3d 787, 790 (2d Cir. 1994). This principle merits particular weight when a civil rights violation is alleged. See McEachin v. McGuinnis , 357 F.3d 197, 200 (2d Cir. 2004). However, "even pro se plaintiffs asserting civil rights claims are not exempt from Twombly's threshold that the pleadings must contain factual allegations sufficient to raise a right of relief above the speculative level." Arias-Mieses v. CSX Transp. Inc. , 630 F.Supp.2d 328, 331 (S.D.N.Y.2009) (internal quotations omitted).

3. According to his second amended complaint, on January 18, 2011 Gibson first contacted Defendant Karnofsky about changing his religious designation to Judaism. Karnofsky replied that he would make the requested change after he received the proper form and after Gibson attended three Jewish services. Shortly thereafter, however, Gibson was moved to the Special Housing Unit ("SHU"), a segregation cell used primarily for discipline. There, Gibson again wrote to Karnofsky, informing him that he would not be able to attend services because of his confinement in the SHU. Karnofsky again replied, but informed him that, in accordance with DOCCS' Directive No. 4202, he could not make a change to an inmate's religious designation while housed in the SHU. This chain of events, Gibson alleges, violated his rights under the First Amendment and RLUIPA.

4. To state a RLUIPA or free-exercise First Amendment claim, [1] "[a] prisoner must [allege] at the threshold that the disputed conduct substantially burdens his sincerely held religious beliefs. The defendants then bear the relatively limited burden of identifying the legitimate penological interests that justify the impinging conduct." Salahuddin v. Goord , 467 F.3d 263, 274-75 (2d Cir. 2006). A "substantial burden exists when the state puts substantial pressure on an [inmate] to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs." Boomer v. Irvin , 963 F.Supp. 227, 230 (W.D.N.Y. 1997) (citing Jolly v. Coughlin , 76 F.3d 468, 476 (2d Cir. 1996)).

5. Defendants raise only one argument in seeking to dismiss this cause of action. They contend that Gibson's allegations fail to state a claim because they demonstrate only that he was prevented from being designated Jewish; the allegations do not demonstrate, according to Defendants, that his ability to practice Judaism was substantially burdened, as required to state a First Amendment or RLUIPA claim.[2]

A liberal reading of the second amended complaint, and one that "draws all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor, " however, suggests that Gibson was not only denied the designation he requested, but by extension, he was also denied the ability to practice his religion. Indeed, Gibson finally notes in his response to the motion to dismiss that he was unable to observe the Sabbath or adhere to Judaic dietary law. But even without the additional facts supplied in his moving papers, the inability to practice his religion is implicit - is inferable - in the second amended complaint, as this inability is a direct consequence of the prison official's alleged failure to recognize him as Jewish.

DOCCS' own directives, for example, provide that members of certain religions may receive, in accordance with constitutional mandates, alternative meals. See Kahane v. Carlson , 527 F.2d 492, 496 (2d Cir. 1975) (Constitution requires inmates be supplied with dietary options that conform with reasonable tenants of their religion); Bass v. Coughlin , 976 F.2d 98, 99 (2d Cir.1992) ("At least as early as 1975, it was established that prison officials must provide a prisoner a diet that is consistent with his religious scruples. Kahane has never been overruled and remains the law."). But of course, those meals are not provided to inmates who are not designated as members of that religion. As such, if there were any error in failing to designate Gibson as Jewish, that error logically extends to Gibson's inability to practice his religion.

This Court takes no position on the ultimate merits of Gibson's claim, but because Gibson has sufficiently alleged that a substantial burden was placed on the practice of his religion, on the narrow ground that Defendants seek to dismiss this cause of action, their motion is denied.

6. Gibson next alleges that Defendant Robinson violated his rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment during the course of a prison disciplinary hearing. Gibson alleges that Defendant Robinson "deprived plaintiff of (1) adequate employee assistant to assist in preparing him for the hearing; (2) unlawful cell search; (3) fair and impartial hearing; (4) excluding plaintiff from the hearing proceeding review of evidence; and (5) ...

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