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Strickland v. S.A. Godinez

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

October 6, 2014

ERIK C. STRICKLAND, No. K-71807, Plaintiff,



Plaintiff Eric C. Strickland, an inmate in Lawrence Correctional Center, brings this action for deprivations of his constitutional rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, based on policies and practices of the Illinois Department of Corrections ("IDOC") and Lawrence Correctional Center ("Lawrence") that have impeded his ability to practice the ancient Asatru religion, also known as Odinism.

This case is now before the Court for a preliminary review of the complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, which provides:

(a) Screening.- The court shall review, before docketing, if feasible or, in any event, as soon as practicable after docketing, a complaint in a civil action in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity.
(b) Grounds for Dismissal.- On review, the court shall identify cognizable claims or dismiss the complaint, or any portion of the complaint, if the complaint-
(1) is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted; or
(2) seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.

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). Frivolousness is an objective standard that refers to a claim that "no reasonable person could suppose to have any merit." Lee v. Clinton, 209 F.3d 1025, 1026-27 (7th Cir. 2000). 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). The claim of entitlement to relief must cross "the line between possibility and plausibility." Id. at 557. At this juncture, the factual allegations of the pro se complaint are to be liberally construed. See Rodriguez v. Plymouth Ambulance Serv., 577 F.3d 816, 821 (7th Cir. 2009).

The Complaint

According to the voluminous complaint, Plaintiff Strickland is a sincere adherent of Asatru, but prison policies and practices, and the acts and omissions of the defendant prison officials, have prevented him from individual and group worship. The Asatru belief system entails sharing a horn of mead (or juice) with other adherents in an outdoor setting and making offerings to various gods and goddesses by pouring liquid on the ground. Group feasting is also required on four to thirteen holy days throughout the year. Ideally, Plaintiff and fellow Asatruers would meet weekly for outdoor ritual services in a specially constructed structure with a fire pit ( see Doc. 1-1, pp. 23-28). Individual ritual practices include wearing medallions and headbands and using a special altar cloth.

In July 2012, Plaintiff began requesting permission to conduct group services and to be allowed to possess an altar cloth and other ritual items in his cell so he could worship alone. Every few days over a two-year period, Plaintiff made written and oral requests in pursuit of the ability to practice his religion. He pursued his requests up the chain of command at Lawrence, and then through the IDOC, to little or no avail. Most times his requests, letters, and grievances went unanswered. On a few occasions, Plaintiff would take a step forward-such as being directed to formulate a written plan for the prison administration to consider, or being told he could possess a medallion or altar cloth-only to have permission withdrawn or some other impediment placed in his way. In July 2013, Intelligence Officers Harper and Loy went so far as to threaten Plaintiff that if he were to participate in Asatru group services or teach others about the Asatru religion, he would receive a "security group threat" ticket. To this day, Plaintiff has not participated in any Asatru group services for fear of punishment.

At this juncture, Asatru group religious services have been reduced to merely a religious study group, with only two rituals permitted per year. In contrast, Plaintiff observes that Catholics, Jews, Muslims, African Hebrew Israelites, and other religions are permitted to practice their religious rituals, meet for group services, and possess personal ritual items.

Plaintiff brings suit against the IDOC and Lawrence administrators S.A. Godinez, Ty Bates, Donald Gatez, Steve Keim, Marc Hodge, Steve Duncan, Beth Tredway, and David Vaughn, and in some instances Intelligence Officers Loy and Harper, alleging that they have violated his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a), the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, and the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. He further alleges that Intelligence Officers Loy and Harper violated the First Amendment when they threatened disciplinary action against Plaintiff in an effort to dissuade him from practicing his religion. Furthermore, Plaintiff asserts that all of the defendants conspired to violate his civil rights. Plaintiff seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as nominal, compensatory, and punitive damages.

Based on the allegations in the complaint, the Court finds it convenient to divide the pro se action into four counts. The parties and the Court will use these designations in all future pleadings and orders, unless otherwise directed by a judicial officer of this Court. The ...

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