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Sangraal v. Flagg

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

August 5, 2016

BENJAMIN SANGRAAL, Plaintiff,
v.
JULIUS FLAGG, JIMMY D. LEEK, MCCABE, D. DOWNS, JOHN A. DRANNAN, PITTS, GREG SCHWARTZ, CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON, STEPHEN A. JOHNSON, TYSHA A. MATHIS, MARK A. BURTON, BRAD RITZHEIMER, MCCANCE, TYONE MURRAY, LUCY HEMKER, AUSTIN, and UNKNOWN JOHN DOE DEFENDANTS Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          MICHAEL J. REAGAN U.S. District Judge

         Plaintiff Benjamin Sangraal, formerly an inmate at Centralia Correctional Center and Pickneyville Correctional Center, brings this action for deprivations of his constitutional rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Although Plaintiff is no longer incarcerated, he has moved to proceed pro-se in the action. Therefore the Court will conduct a preliminary review of the complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2), which provides:

         Not withstanding any filing fee, or any portion thereof, that may have been paid, the court shall dismiss at any time if the court determines that the action or appeal

i. is frivolous or malicious;
ii. fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted; or
iii. 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). 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). Additionally, Courts “should not accept as adequate abstract recitations of the elements of a cause of action or conclusory legal statements.” Id. At the same time, however, the factual allegations of a pro se complaint are to be liberally construed. See Rodriguez v. Plymouth Ambulance Serv., 577 F.3d 816, 821 (7th Cir. 2009).

         Upon careful review of the complaint and any supporting exhibits, the Court finds it appropriate to exercise its authority under § 1915; portions of this action are subject to summary dismissal.

         The Complaint

         Plaintiff filed a typed 62 page complaint, one which falls just short of violating Rule 8’s mandate that complaints should be short and plain. Nevertheless, while much of Plaintiff’s complaint lapses into argument, which is improper in a complaint, he does manage to articulate some cognizable claims.

         Plaintiff, a practicing Pagan, set up a Pagan/Wiccan study circle at Centralia. (Doc. 1, p. 1-2). Despite this, he remained unsatisfied with the degree of accommodation to his religious practices at the prison, and filed a lawsuit alleging certain violations of his religious rights. (Doc. 1, p. 2). Plaintiff filed the lawsuit on June 4, 2014, see Case No. 14-cv-661, although he alleges that he finished writing it on May 12, 2014 and that the defendants were aware that he intended to file it as of that date. (Doc. 1, p. 14). Plaintiff alleges that other inmates wished to join in his lawsuit, and to that end, he prepared form grievances for them to sign. (Doc. 1, p. 11-12). Three inmates submitted identical grievances with their personal information and signatures, while another copied out the template Plaintiff had provided in longhand. (Doc. 1, p. 12). Altogether, four inmates submitted grievances based on Plaintiff’s template.

         On May 14, 2014, Leek interviewed Plaintiff regarding the three identical grievances, at McCabe’s direction. (Doc. 1, p. 15). Leek then wrote Plaintiff a disciplinary ticket dated May 16, 2014 for the offenses 309 “Petitions” and 310 “Abuse of Privileges, ” based on Plaintiff’s conduct in preparing the grievances for others. (Doc. 1, p. 17). The ticket was sanctioned by Greg Schwartz and served by L. Waters. (Doc. 1, p. 17). Counselor Murray rejected three out of the four ghostwritten grievances, as well as Plaintiff’s own grievance, on May 15, 2014. (Doc. 1, p. 16-17).

         Plaintiff wrote an emergency grievance to Warden Flagg regarding his impending disciplinary hearing, but the grievance was rejected as a non-emergency. (Doc. 1, p. 16).

         The adjustment committee, consisting of Stephen Johnson, McCance, and Mathias, held hearing on May 19, 2014. (Doc. 1, p. 20). Plaintiff alleges that Stephen Johnson and McCance should have recused themselves because Plaintiff filed grievances against them in the past. (Doc. 1, p. 20). Plaintiff further alleges that he was not permitted to call any witnesses to the hearing via institutional mail, and that a correctional counselor should have been present. (Doc. 1, p. 19-20). He was allegedly not granted a continuance so that he could call witnesses. (Doc. 1, p. 20). Plaintiff was also not permitted to submit a four page written statement that he had prepared because he did not have copies, and so was forced to read it aloud. (Doc. 1, p. 20). While Plaintiff read his statement, Mathias made “abusive personal” comments towards Plaintiff, specifically, “You think you’re so smart . . . look where that’s got you.” (Doc. 1, p. 21). The committee sentenced Plaintiff to one month segregation, two months of c-grade, two months exercise restriction and a disciplinary transfer to a higher-security facility. (Doc. 1, p. 22). Plaintiff alleges that Flagg conspired with the members of the adjustment committee to produce this outcome in order to transfer Plaintiff to moot the claims for injunctive relief in Sangraal v. Godinez, 14-cv-661.

         Plaintiff’s personal property was then searched on May 19, 2014 due to his placement in segregation. (Doc. 1, p. 22). During the search, Officers Downs and Drannan found Plaintiff’s journal. (Doc. 1, p. 22). The first page of the journal contained a notice: “Privileged Material Attorney-Client Work Product Record.” (Doc. 1, p. 22). The officers read the journal in its entirety. (Doc. 1, p. 22). The journal contained descriptions of instances of staff misconduct, documentation regarding grievances and legal filings, notes on Plaintiff’s physical and mental condition, thoughts, dreams, spiritual experiences, etc. (Doc. 1, p. 22-23). Prison staff accused Plaintiff of including accounts of sexual activity between Plaintiff and his cellmate in the journal, in violation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act. (Doc. 1, p. 26).

         Drannan and Downs wrote Plaintiff a disciplinary ticket for 308 contraband/unauthorized property for having excess property. (Doc. 1, p. 23). Pitts signed off on the ticket. (Doc. 1, p. 23). Plaintiff alleges that this ticket was issued due to continuing retaliation. (Doc. 1, p. 23). In fact, Plaintiff’s property had been inspected the morning of May 19, 2014 during a routine compliance check, and nothing had been found amiss. (Doc. 1, p. 23). Plaintiff’s entire stash of foodstuff was confiscated, along with a large plastic bowl he used to prepare meals, which he was not able to replace. (Doc. 1, p. 24).

         Plaintiff was not given a hearing on the excess property ticket; instead, the disciplinary report was allegedly falsified to show that he pled guilty on May 22, 2014. (Doc. 1, p. 24). When Plaintiff was released from segregation, he found that his property box was only half full. (Doc. 1, p. 24).

         Plaintiff met with Christopher Johnson of Internal Affairs on May 21, 2014. (Doc. 1, p. 25). Christopher Johnson told Plaintiff that the warden was aware of his complaints about retaliation, and that he had ordered Plaintiff’s placement in segregation. (Doc. 1, p. 25). Christopher Johnson revealed that Hemker had searched Plaintiff’s legal box and discovered material that she believed was not legal. (Doc. 1, p. 25). Plaintiff maintains that all the property in his box was legal, although he characterized certain creative works in his box as legal because he intended to copyright them. Christopher Johnson then produced the disputed box and ordered Plaintiff to open several sealed envelopes in the box, or face additional disciplinary charges. (Doc. 1, p. 26). Christopher Johnson conceded that the sealed envelopes contained legal materials. (Doc. 1, p. 26).

         Christopher Johnson questioned Plaintiff about the sexual passages in his journal. (Doc. 1, p. 27). Under duress, Plaintiff told Johnson that the accounts were fantasies. (Doc. 1, p. 27). Christopher Johnson then allegedly interviewed Plaintiff’s cellmate and showed him the journal. (Doc. 1, p. 27). Plaintiff alleges that as a result of this incident, rumors about Plaintiff’s sexuality spread through Centralia and Pickneyville, exposing him to risk from the inmate population. (Doc. 1, p. 27). Plaintiff was ultimately issued a disciplinary ticket based on his journal for 204 insolence, 308 contraband, and 310 abuse of privileges. (Doc. 1, p. 29). The ticket was written by Christopher Johnson, sanctioned by Schwartz and investigated by McCance. (Doc. 1, p. 29).

         That disciplinary ticket regarding the journal was heard on May 27, 2014 by Stephen Johnson, Burton, and Ritzheimer. (Doc. 1, p. 30). Burton was the only person present when Plaintiff arrived; he smirked at Plaintiff and told him “Everything’s funny.” (Doc. 1, p. 31). Plaintiff also noticed the Burton had already filed out the segregation placement form with Plaintiff’s information prior to any hearing being conducted. (Doc. 1, p. 31). Plaintiff alleges that Burton was biased against him prior to the hearing, and continually interrupted and harassed him during the hearing. (Doc. 1, p. 32, 34). No counselor was provided at the hearing. (Doc. 1, p. 31). Plaintiff was sentenced to one month of segregation, two months of c-grade, and two months exercise restriction. (Doc. 1, p. 34). Flagg signed off on the adjustment committee report. (Doc. 1, p. 35).

         Plaintiff’s journal was never returned. (Doc. 1, p. 35). Plaintiff alleges that the failure to return the journal, which allegedly contained details of numerous interactions with IDOC staff that violated Plaintiff’s civil rights, made filing these claims impractical or impossible. (Doc. 1, p. 35).

         Also, on May 27, 2014, Christopher Johnson brought Plaintiff a mail-voucher to sign in order to send the non-legal materials found in his legal property box out of the institution. (Doc. 1, p. 35). Plaintiff started to ask why he had to send the material out as it was not contraband, when Christopher Johnson became visibly irate and yelled “I’m not going over this with you! I’ll just write you a ticket then!” and slammed the chuck hole. (Doc. 1, p. 36). Plaintiff received a disciplinary ticket for this incident on May 29, 2014 for 303 false information, 308 contraband, and 310 abuse of privileges. (Doc. 1, p. 37). Christopher Johnson wrote the ticket, Schwartz sanctioned it, and Ritzheimer served it. (Doc. 1, p. 37). Although Plaintiff eventually signed a voucher so that the materials could be mailed out to his family, they were ultimately forwarded to him at Pickneyville, despite the fact that his account was debited $6.99. (Doc. 1, p. 42).

         Plaintiff appeared before an adjustment committee consisting of Stephen Johnson, Burton, and McCance on June 5, 2014 on charges stemming from his alleged refusal to mail out the non-legal materials found in his legal property box. (Doc. 1, p. 40). Plaintiff objected to these officers, as he had just named them enemies on June 3, 2014. (Doc. 1p. 40-41). Plaintiff requested his cell mate as a witness, but his cell mate was released from prison prior to the hearing. (Doc. 1, p. 41). Burton once again made hostile comments to Plaintiff throughout the hearing. (Doc. 1, p. 41). Plaintiff also believes that Stephen Johnson did not properly consider his rebuttal arguments or evidence. (Doc. 1, p. 42). Flagg signed off on the adjustment committee report on June 5, 2014. (Doc. 1, p. 42).

         Plaintiff alleges that as a result of the time he spent in segregation at Centralia, he was unable to attend Pagan religious services, lost phone privileges, and had diminished access to law library materials. (Doc. 1, p. 43-45). He further alleges that as a result of his disciplinary transfer to Pickneyville, he lost his LED television through property damage, lost weight because Pickneyville’s two-meal plan is inadequate, suffered from fewer exercise opportunities and smaller cells, lost muscle tone, had fewer opportunities to use the phone, received fewer visits from his mother, and was deprived of all Pagan worship opportunities and a Pagan diet. (Doc. 1 p. 45-48). Plaintiff also alleges that an unknown IA officer at Pickneyville threatened him to prevent him from filing more grievances and told him that he had been “warned” about Plaintiff by one or more persons at Centralia. (Doc. 1, p. 48).

         Discussion

         Plaintiff divided his complaint into approximately 67 individual counts. Previously, based on the allegations of the complaint, the Court found it convenient to divide the pro se action into a mere 23 counts. Two claims were severed off into separate cases. (Doc. 5). Twenty one claims proceeded in this case, and are now subject to review. The following claims survive threshold review.

         Count 1 - Leek, McCabe, Schwartz, Flagg, Pitts, Downs, Austin, Christopher Johnson, and Drannan retaliated against Plaintiff for engaging in protected conduct by writing Plaintiff four disciplinary tickets

         Count 2: Stephen Johnson, Mathis, McCance, and Flagg retaliated against Plaintiff when they found him guilty of the disciplinary ticket on 5/19/14

         Count 3: Stephen Johnson, Mathis, McCance, Flagg, and John Doe improperly burdened the exercise of Plaintiff’s religion by approving a disciplinary transfer to Pickneyville Correctional Center in violation of the First Amendment

         Count 4: Stephen Johnson, Burton and Ritzheimer retaliated against Plaintiff when they found him guilty on the third disciplinary ticket on 5/27/14.

         Count 5: Stephen Johnson, McCance, Burton, and Flagg retaliated against Plaintiff when they found him guilty of the fourth disciplinary ticket on 6/5/14

         Count 6: Flagg improperly burdened Plaintiff’s exercise of his religion when he refused to allow him to attend chapel service while in segregation Plaintiff has also attempted to bring other Counts, but for the reasons elucidated below, these claims do not survive threshold review

         Count 7: Hemker violated Plaintiff’s right of access to the Courts when he charged him for case law due to his status as a segregation inmate

         Count 8: John Doe retaliated against Plaintiff when he contacted internal affairs at Pickneyville to warn them about Plaintiff’s ...


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