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Stephens v. Byrd

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

September 12, 2019

SGT. BYRD, ET AL., Defendants.



         The plaintiff, Charlie Grant Stephens, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se, filed this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Stephens alleges that after his transfer from one jail to another, a jail official discriminated against him because of his race by refusing to return his Bible and legal papers, and other officials failed to retrieve them for him. After review of the record, the court concludes that several of Stephens' submissions, ECF Nos. 38, 49, 50-53, must be liberally construed, jointly, as amendments to Stephen's allegations. While such piecemeal construction of the complaint is not consistent with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, in light of the plaintiffs pro se status, the court will grant these amendments and consider his allegations as presented in all of his filings. See, e.g., Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 90-95 (2007). In so doing, the court concludes that the defendants are entitled to summary judgment.


         Taking Stephens' amended complaint in the light most favorable to him, he alleges the following sequence of events. From January 2017 to January 2018, Stephens was incarcerated at the Western Virginia Regional Jail ("WVRJ"). The WVRJ chaplain provided Stephens with a "Life Recovery Bible," a specially designed version to help him reconnect to God while also helping him in his recovery from substance addictions. Verif. Brief. 2, ECF No. 50.

         In January 2018, Stephens and Antwain Strange, an African American inmate who had also received a Life Recovery Bible while at WVRJ, were transferred to a New River Valley Regional Jail ("NRVRJ") facility. On January 10, 2018, both Strange and Stephens asked Sergeant ("Sgt") Byrd for permission to retrieve their Bibles and legal papers from their personal property. Byrd refused. Later, Byrd allowed Strange to collect his property items, including his Life Recovery Bible. Stephens renewed his request to recover his Bible and other property items, but Byrd refused, allegedly because of Stephens' race. Captain Murphy later allegedly agreed with Stephens that Byrd had likely returned Strange's Bible because of his race.[1]

         In January 2018, Stephens also asked Sgt. Hall for return of his Bible and legal papers. Hall said that he was not allowed to have them. In January, and again in February 2018, Stephens asked Captain Murphy for his Bible and legal papers. Murphy said he would bring the items to Stephens soon, but failed to do so. Compl. 4, ECF No. 1; Am. Compl. 4, ECF No. 17. Stephens also asked Sgt. Nowers, who said that he would "look into it, he never did." Am. Compl. 3, ECF No. 17. When Stephens asked Nowers again in February 2018, the sergeant said, "You're not going to get it (bible), so fu**ing get over it." Id.

         In February 2018, Stephens also told Captain Fleeman about his transfer and his desire to have his Bible and papers. Fleeman said he would "check on it and get back to" Stephens. Brief 9, ECF No. 38. He did not. When Stephens asked Sgt. McNeily for return of his Bible and legal papers, the sergeant said that he could have the items back. He told Stephens to send him a written request, and he would have the items returned that same night. Stephens wrote the request, but never received a response.

         Stephens was not provided with a copy of the NRVRJ Inmate Handbook until April 2018. Thus, from January 10 to mid-April 2018, he did not know that he could request a donated Bible from the prison library. When he verbally asked officers for return of his Bible, no one told him about how to ask for a donated one. After he received an inmate handbook and learned there was a grievance procedure, he asked, unsuccessfully, for grievance forms. Stephens also followed the first step of the grievance procedure, by filing numerous written request forms asking for return of his Bible and papers. He never got a response.

         Stephens filed his initial § 1983 complaint in April 2018, suing only the jail. After the court notified him that the jail was not a proper defendant under § 1983, he filed an amended complaint that misjoined many claims. The court notified him of this problem, and in July 2018, he filed a second amended complaint, naming these officers as defendants: Byrd, Hall, McNeily, Nowers, Fleeman, and Murphy. Stephens alleges two constitutional claims: (1) the defendants deprived him of a Bible, in violation of his First Amendment right to free exercise of his religious beliefs; and (2) Byrd denied him equal protection by discriminating against him because of his race, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. He seeks only monetary damages. On July 18, 2018, the court served the case on the defendants.

         In late May 2018, the NRVRJ chaplain advised Stephens that jail policy permitted him to have his Bible in his cell. The chaplain told Stephens to write a request, and he would check into it. The chaplain never received that request.

         On August 1, 2018, Murphy asked Stephens why the list of defendants in the lawsuit included Murphy. He told Stephens, "I thought I gave your bible back to you, it was missing the cover and you asked why." Brief 12, ECF No. 38. Stephens said no one had returned his Bible. Murphy returned the Bible to Stephens on August 8, 2018. In September 2018, Stephens was transferred to a state prison facility.

         The defendants have filed a motion to dismiss, or in the alternative, motion for summary judgment, supported by affidavits. They argue that Stephens failed to exhaust administrative remedies regarding his claims before filing this lawsuit, as required under 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), and that they are entitled to qualified immunity as to his claims for damages. Stephens has responded to their motion, making it ripe for disposition.[2]


         A. The ...

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