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Sullivan v. Younce

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

February 16, 2017

R.W. YOUNCE, et al., Defendants.


          Robert E. Payne Senior United States District Judge

         Theodore Sullivan, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, filed this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action.[1] The matter proceeds on the Particularized Complaint (“Complaint, " ECF No. 30) alleging that Defendants[2] violated his First[3] and Fourteenth[4] Amendment rights and his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act ("RLUIPA").[5] The matter is before the Court on the Motion to Dismiss filed by Defendants R.W. Younce, Sgt. Medilia, and Wendy S. Hobbs (“First Motion to Dismiss, " ECF No. 35), and a separate Motion to Dismiss filed by Defendant Lt. Investigator Harrison ("Second Motion to Dismiss, " ECF No. 47), [6] and the Court's obligations under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. Sullivan has responded. (ECF Nos. 45, 50.)[7] For the reasons set for below, the Court will grant the Motions to Dismiss. Sullivan's claims will be dismissed for failure to state a claim for relief and as frivolous.


         Pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA") this Court must dismiss any action filed by a prisoner if the Court determines the action (1) “is frivolous" or (2) “fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted." 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2); see 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. The first standard includes claims based upon “an indisputably meritless legal theory, '" or claims where the “'factual contentions are clearly baseless.'" Clay v. Yates, 809 F.Supp. 417, 427 (E.D. Va. 1992) (quoting Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 327 (1989)). The second standard is the familiar standard for a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).

         "A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) tests the sufficiency of a complaint; importantly, it does not resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses." Republican Party of N.C. v. Martin, 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir.1992) (citing 5A Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1356 (1990)). In considering a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a plaintiff's well-pleaded allegations are taken as true and the complaint is viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Mylan Labs., Inc. v. Matkari, 7 F.3d 1130, 1134 (4th Cir. 1993); see also Martin, 980 F.2d at 952. This principle applies only to factual allegations, however, and "a court considering a motion to dismiss can choose to begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009).

         The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure "require[ ] only 'a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ' in order to "give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (second alteration in original) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). Plaintiffs cannot satisfy this standard with complaints containing only "labels and conclusions" or a "formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Id. (citations omitted). Instead, a plaintiff must allege facts sufficient "to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, " id. (citation omitted), stating a claim that is "plausible on its face, " rather than merely "conceivable." Id. at 570. "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 (citing Bell Atl. Corp., 550 U.S. at 556) . Therefore, in order for a claim or complaint to survive dismissal for failure to state a claim, the plaintiff must "allege facts sufficient to state all the elements of [his or] her claim." Bass v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., 324 F.3d 761, 765 (4th Cir. 2003) (citing Dickson v. Microsoft Corp., 309 F.3d 193, 213 (4th Cir. 2002); Iodice v. United States, 289 F.3d 270, 281 (4th Cir. 2002)).

         Lastly, while the Court liberally construes pro se complaints, Gordon v. Leeke, 574 F.2d 1147, 1151 (4th Cir. 1978), it does not act as the inmate's advocate, sua sponte developing statutory and constitutional claims the inmate failed to clearly raise on the face of his complaint. See Brock v. Carroll, 107 F.3d 241, 243 (4th Cir. 1997) (Luttig, J., concurring); Beaudett v. City of Hampton, 775 F.2d 1274, 1278 (4th Cir. 1985).


         In December 2013, Sullivan was housed in the GCC. On December 26, 2013, Defendant Medilia searched Sullivan's cell, confiscated Sullivan's "religious literature, " and gave it to Defendant Harrison. (Compl. ¶ 6.) The purpose of removing the items was to determine whether the items were gang-related "Five Percent[er]" materials. (See id. ¶¶ 8-9, 60.)

         Sullivan filed an informal complaint requesting the return of his property. (Compl. ¶ 8; id. Ex. 1, at 1.) Sullivan's unit manager informed him that his property was turned over to the investigator and that it was under review, and if there was anything that was not considered contraband, it would be returned to him at the conclusion of the investigation. (Compl. ¶ 9; id. Ex. 1.) Sullivan then submitted a regular grievance indicating that his religious materials were taken and he wanted them returned to him. (Compl. ¶ 10; id. Ex. 2.) Assistant Warden Carolyn Parker found Sullivan's grievance unfounded for the same reasons as his unit manager. (Compl. ¶ 11; id. Ex. 4.) Sullivan appealed that decision, and Defendant Hobbs upheld the decision of Parker. (Compl. ¶ 12; id. Ex. 5.)

         On January 31, 2014, Sullivan was transferred from GCC to Keen Mountain Correctional Center ("KMCC") at the request of the Eastern Region Administrator. (Compl. ¶ 15; id. Ex. 6, at 1.) Sullivan filed several informal requests and one informal complaint complaining about his transfer. (See id. Ex. 6, at 1-3.) In his informal requests, he complained that his security level was too low for him to be transferred to KMCC. (See Id. at 2-3.) Staff responded to Sullivan, explaining that he was incorrect, stating: "you were assigned to KMCC by Cent[ral] Classification Services. You are [Security Level] 3. KMCC houses [Security Level] 3 and 4 offenders." (Id. At 3.) Sullivan filed an informal complaint on March 7, 2014, that was sent to the GCC grievance office, complaining that his "transfer to K.M.C.C. was retaliation for the complaints and grievances I wrote . . . ." (Id. at 1.) K. Whitehead responded and explained the following:

You were transferred to Keen Mountain on 1-31-14 at the request of Eastern Region Administrator. While at Greensville only one regular grievance was receipted from you on 1-30-14 concerning confiscation of religious property which was one day before your transfer[;] therefore[, ] it is highly unlikely your transfer was retaliatory to grievance writing.

(Id.) Sullivan continued to file informal complaints and grievances regarding his transfer and the confiscation of his property throughout 2014. (Compl. ¶¶ 16-37.) Sullivan's confiscated property has not been returned to him. (Compl. ¶ 50.)

         Sullivan lists his claims as follows:[8]

Claim One: "Defendants Younce, Harrison, and Sgt. Medilia, violated his First Amendment Right - Free Exercise clause - to be allowed to have his religious materials by the Nation of Islam . . . to meet his religious needs." (Compl. 13.)
Claim Two: "Defendants Younce, Harrison, and Sgt, Medilia violated his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act . . to be allowed his religious materials to meet his religious needs." (Id.)
Claim Three: ''Defendants Younce, Pearson, Harrison, and Sgt. Medilia violated his Fourteenth Amendment Right -to Equal Protection . . . ." (Id.)
Claim Four: "Defendants Younce, Pearson, and Hobbs, violated his Fourteenth Amendment Rights - to the Due Process Clause by transferring Plaintiff over eight (8) hours away from his home and family as a means of retaliation for filing his numerous requests, letters, complaints, and grievances due to the unlawful taking of his religious material." (Id.)

         While Sullivan did not list a fifth claim, Defendants have generously construed Sullivan to raise the additional claim in the body of his Complaint:

Claim Five: Defendants Younce, Pearson, and Hobbs violated Sullivan7 s due process rights by taking his property from his cell.

         Sullivan demands monetary damages and injunctive relief. (Id. at 33-34.)[9]

         III. ANALYSIS

         The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that a complaint contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). While courts should liberally construe pro se complaints, Gordon v. Leeke, 574 F.2d 1147, 1151 (4th Cir. 1978), “[p]rinciples requiring generous construction of pro se complaints are not . . . without limits." Beaudett v. City of Hampton, 775 F.2d 1274, 1278 (4th Cir. 1985). The Court need not attempt "to discern the unexpressed intent of the plaintiff." Laber v. Harvey, 438 F.3d 404, 413 n.3 (4th Cir. 2006) . The Fourth Circuit has explained that "though [pro se] litigants cannot, of course, be expected to frame legal issues with the clarity and precision ideally evident in the work of those trained in law, neither can district courts be required to conjure up and decide issues never fairly presented to them." Beaudett, 775 F.2d at 1276. In other words, “[d]istrict judges are not mind readers." Id. at 1278.

         As a preliminary matter, Sullivan's claims as set forth above do not correspond with the facts that Sullivan has delineated to support each claim. For example, in Claim Four, Sullivan alleges a due process violation because Defendants Younce, Pearson, and Hobbs transferred him as retaliation for filing grievances. The body of his Complaint that purportedly corresponds to Claim Four, however, alleges that his due process rights were violated when his property was taken. (Compl. ¶¶ 71-72.) Sullivan later adds an entire section titled, "Retaliation" (id. at 25), although he alleged no freestanding claim of retaliation. Liberal construction of a pro se pleading does not mean that a court should invent facts to remedy an inadequately pled claim. Instead, the "plaintiff remains the master of his complaint and is, in the end, the person responsible for articulating the facts that give rise to a cognizable claim." Davis v. Scott, 157 F.3d 1003, 1006 (5th Cir. 1998) . Sullivan has had more than ample opportunity to plead his claims. Accordingly, the Court will not cull through the allegations and supporting facts to create legal claims for Sullivan.

         A. No Personal Involvement Alleged

         In order to state a viable claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege that a person acting under color of state law deprived him or her of a constitutional right or of a right conferred by a law of the United States. See Dowe v. Total Action Against Poverty in Roanoke Valley, 145 F.3d 653, 658 (4th Cir. 1998) . "Government officials may not be held liable for the unconstitutional conduct of their subordinates under a theory of respondeat superior." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 676 (2009)(citations omitted). "[A] plaintiff must plead that each Government-official defendant, through the official's own individual actions, has violated the Constitution." Id. "Where a complaint alleges no specific act or conduct on the part of the defendant and the complaint is silent as to the defendant except for his name appearing in the caption, the complaint is properly dismissed, even under the liberal construction to be given pro se complaints." Potter v. Clark, 497 F.2d 1206, 1207 (7th Cir. 1974) (citing U.S. ex rel. Brzozowski v. Randall, 281 F.Supp. 306, 312 (E.D. Pa. 1968)). As discussed below, Sullivan fails to allege any personal involvement in the deprivation of his rights by the majority of the Defendants.

         B. First Amendment (Claim One)

         In Claim One, Sullivan alleges that "Defendants Younce, Harrison, and Sgt. Medilia, violated his First Amendment Right -Free Exercise clause - to be allowed to have his religious materials by the Nation of Islam ... to meet his religious needs." (Compl. 13.)

         As an initial matter, Defendants argue that Sullivan alleges no personal involvement in the deprivation of his constitutional rights by Defendant Younce. Sullivan fails to mention Defendant Younce in the body of his Complaint, much less allege personal involvement in the deprivation of his religious rights. For the first time in his Reply, and in an attempt to correct the deficiencies identified by Defendants' in their Motion to Dismiss with regard to Claim One, Sullivan adds new allegations that amend paragraph 48 of his Complaint. In his Complaint, Sullivan alleged that, while Sgt. Medilia was searching Sullivan's cell, he received a call on his radio asking "Did you find anything yet?" (Compl. ¶ 48.) In his Reply, Sullivan now contends that Sgt. Medilia received the call from Defendant Younce and that Defendant Younce was in "direct line of sight of [Sullivan] when he stated this, " thereby, Defendant Younce had personal involvement in the search. (Reply 5, ECF No. 45.) As discussed previously, a reply in response to a motion to dismiss is not the proper place to allege new facts to correct the deficiencies in a complaint. Nevertheless, because Sullivan's First Amendment claim clearly lacks merit, the Court addresses any claim against Defendant Younce in conjunction with its discussion of Defendants Harrison and Medilia.

         To state a First Amendment free exercise claim, Sullivan must allege facts that suggest that Ml) he holds a sincere belief that is religious in nature" and (2) that Defendants Harrison and Medilia imposed a substantial burden on the practice of his religion. Whitehouse v. Johnson, No. 1:10cv1175 (CMH/JFA), 2011 WL 5843622, at *4 (E.D. Va. Nov. 18, 2011) (citing Hernandez v. Comm'r, 490 U.S. 680, 699 (1989)). "Government officials impose a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion by “put[ting] substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs.'" Massenburg v. Adams, No. 3:08 cv 106, 2011 WL ...

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