United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
GLEN E. CONRAD SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.