United States District Court, S.D. Illinois
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
MICHAEL J. REAGAN, District Judge.
Plaintiff Vance White, an inmate who is currently incarcerated at Lawrence Correctional Center ("Lawrence"), brings this pro se civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Doc. 1). Plaintiff challenges Lawrence's policy prohibiting inmates who are identified as "vulnerable" from obtaining prison jobs. This group consists almost entirely of openly homosexual inmates. The complaint alleges that enforcement of the policy results in discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Plaintiff now challenges this policy under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and sues Defendants Marc Hodge (Lawrence's warden) and Beth Treadway (Lawrence's assistant warden of programs) for enforcing the policy against him. He also claims that Defendants Hodge and Treadway unlawfully ignored his grievances challenging the policy. Plaintiff seeks declaratory judgment, monetary damages, and injunctive relief.
According to the complaint, Plaintiff is an openly gay inmate, who has been incarcerated at Lawrence since March 15, 2013 (Doc. 1, pp. 2-3). In 2007, he was classified as "vulnerable, " following an incident of unwanted sexual touching by a cellmate while Plaintiff slept (Doc. 1, p. 3). Plaintiff now claims that Lawrence officials discriminated against him because of his sexual orientation and his "vulnerable" status by denying him a job in 2013.
On May 16, 2013, Plaintiff submitted a written request for a job to Counselor McDonald,  one of Lawrence's job counselors. Plaintiff's request was denied because he did not satisfy the criteria for job placement. Plaintiff submitted a second job request on May 17, 2013, this time asking for a list of the criteria for job placement (Doc. 1, pp. 3, 12). When he received no response, Plaintiff asked Counselor McDonald for an explanation. Counselor McDonald told Plaintiff that his request was pending but would likely be denied because "vulnerable" inmates cannot get jobs at Lawrence. Plaintiff filed a grievance to challenge this policy (Doc. 1, p. 4). He later learned on July 11, 2013, that his job request was formally denied because of his "vulnerable" status. He filed a grievance appealing the decision the same day.
When Plaintiff did not receive a response to either grievance, he contacted Defendants Treadway and Hodge (Doc. 1, p. 5). Defendant Treadway agreed to "look into" the policy prohibiting "vulnerable" inmates from working. On October 21, 2013, Defendant Treadway responded to Plaintiff's grievance in writing, by stating that "unfortunately the criteria established doesn't [sic] allow for vulnerables" (Doc. 1, p. 5). Plaintiff filed an emergency grievance with Defendant Hodge in November 2013, and it was denied (Doc. 1, p. 6).
Plaintiff now claims that the policy prohibiting "vulnerable" inmates from obtaining jobs at Lawrence is discriminatory. This is because most inmates who are classified as "vulnerable" are openly gay. Therefore, the policy prevents homosexuals from working to earn state pay. Plaintiff asserts claims against Defendants Hodge and Treadway for denying his right to equal protection of the law under the Fourteenth Amendment and for delaying his access to the courts by ignoring his related grievances (Doc. 1, p. 8).
Merits Review Under § 1915A
This case is now before the Court for a preliminary review of the complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. Under § 1915A, the Court is required to promptly screen prisoner complaints to filter out nonmeritorious claims. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The Court is required to dismiss any portion of the complaint that is legally frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or asks for money damages from a defendant who by law is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b).
An action or claim is frivolous if "it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact." Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989). An action fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted if it does not plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Conversely, a complaint is plausible on its face "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Although the Court is obligated to accept factual allegations as true, see Smith v. Peters, 631 F.3d 418, 419 (7th Cir. 2011), some factual allegations may be so sketchy or implausible that they fail to provide sufficient notice of a plaintiff's claim. Brooks v. Ross, 578 F.3d 574, 581 (7th Cir. 2009).
Count 1 - Equal Protection
After carefully considering the allegations in the complaint, the Court concludes that Plaintiff has articulated a viable equal protection claim (Count 1) against Defendants Hodge and Treadway. The complaint alleges that Lawrence's policy prohibiting job assignments to "vulnerables, " a group consisting almost entirely of openly homosexual inmates, is discriminatory. In order to establish a prima facie case of discrimination under the equal protection clause, a plaintiff must show that he "is a member of a protected class, " that he "is otherwise similarly situated to members of the unprotected class, " and that he "was treated differently from members of the unprotected class." McNabola v. Chicago Transit Auth., 10 F.3d 501, 513 (7th Cir. 1993) (quoting McMillian v. Svetanoff, 878 F.2d 186, 189 (7th Cir. 1989)). As applied to prisoners, the equal protection clause "requires inmates to be treated equally, unless unequal treatment bears a rational relation to a legitimate penal interest." May v. Sheahan, 226 F.3d 876, 882 (7th Cir. 2000) (citing Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517, 523 (1984); Lee v. Washington, 390 U.S. 333 (1968) (per curiam); Williams v. Lane, 851 F.2d 867, 881 (7th Cir. 1988)).
Whether heightened scrutiny applies to Plaintiff's particular claim is subject to debate, given the United States Supreme Court's recent decision in United States v. Windsor, ___ U.S. ___, 133 S.Ct. 2675, 186 L.Ed.2d 808 (2013). The Supreme Court in Windsor held that denying same-sex couples equal status under the law serves no constitutionally legitimate purpose. Id. at 2693-96. However, the Supreme Court did not definitively state which standard of review applies to discriminatory classifications based on sexual orientation. Id. at 2696. This decision sparked a number of cases across jurisdictions; several courts, including the Ninth Circuit, have since held that classifications based on sexual orientation are subject to heightened ...