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Sangraal v. Keim

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

August 5, 2016

STEPHEN KEIM, Defendant.

          Benjamin Sangraal, Plaintiff, Pro Se.


          NANCY J. ROSENSTENGEL, District Judge.

         After his release from custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections ("IDOC"), Plaintiff Benjamin Sangraal brought a civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to complain about numerous constitutional violations that occurred during his incarceration at Centralia Correctional Center ("Centralia") and Pinckneyville Correctional Center ("Pinckneyville"). See Sangraal v. Flagg, et al., No. 16-cv-0550-MJR ("original case"). This case was severed from the original case pursuant to a Memorandum and Order entered by the Court on July 6, 2016. (Doc. 2, instant case). Consistent with the Memorandum and Order, this case will address Plaintiff's claim against the IDOC's head chaplain, Stephen Keim ("Chaplain Keim"), for denying Plaintiff's request for a religiously-motivated kosher diet (Count 23, original case). Plaintiff's severed claim is now subject to preliminary review, along with his motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis ("IFP motion") (Doc. 3).

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(1), a federal district court may allow a civil action to proceed without prepayment of fees, if the movant "submits an affidavit that includes a statement of all assets [he] possesses [showing] that the person is unable to pay such fees or give security therefor." Plaintiff submitted a statement indicating that he lacks sufficient income or assets to pay the filing fee ( see Doc. 3). The Court accepts this statement in satisfaction of § 1915(a)(1) and finds that Plaintiff is indigent and unable to pay the filing fee for this action; however, the Court's inquiry does not end there.

         Section 1915(e)(2) requires careful threshold scrutiny of the complaint filed by an IFP plaintiff. A court can deny a qualified plaintiff leave to proceed IFP or dismiss a case if the action is clearly frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim, or is a claim for money damages against an immune defendant. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). The test for determining if an action is frivolous or without merit is whether the plaintiff can make a rational argument on the law or facts in support of the claim. Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989); Corgain v. Miller, 708 F.2d 1241, 1247 (7th Cir. 1983). An action fails to state a claim 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). When assessing an IFP motion, a district court should inquire into the merits of the plaintiff's claims, and if the court finds them to be frivolous or meritless, it should deny leave to proceed IFP. Lucien v. Roegner, 682 F.2d 625, 626 (7th Cir. 1982).

         The Complaint

         Plaintiff is a practicing Pagan, who claims that officials at Centralia and Pinckneyville failed to accommodate his religious beliefs (Doc. 1, pp. 48-50). More specifically, Plaintiff asserts that Chaplain Keim denied his request for a religiously-motivated kosher diet at Pinckneyville in 2014 and, in doing so, the chaplain interfered with Plaintiff's religious rights. The allegations offered in support of this claim are set forth on pages 48 through 50 of the complaint (Doc. 1, pp. 48-50, ¶¶ 413-30).

         According to these allegations, Plaintiff was transferred to Pinckneyville for disciplinary reasons (Doc. 1, p. 48). The facility allegedly offers no religious accommodations for Pagan/Wiccan inmates. Plaintiff claims that Pinckneyville is one of several "disciplinary joints" in the IDOC that makes it particularly difficult for inmates to gain approval for religious requests. Plaintiff further maintains that he is entitled to receive a diet that is consistent with his sincerely held religious beliefs and spiritual practices ( id. at 49).

         Plaintiff requires a diet that excludes many of the same "unclean" ingredients that are banned under kosher and halal dietary codes, such as foods containing the blood of dead animals. In addition, Plaintiff excludes foods containing genetically modified organisms from his diet. Finally, under his own interpretation of traditional Pagan religious teachings, Plaintiff is required to consume a "varied, seasonally-based diet" ( id. ).

         The IDOC offers four different diets: the standard prison diet, a kosher diet, a vegan diet, and a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet. In addition, one or more special medical diets are offered to inmates who have special medical needs. The kosher diet is the only diet offered by the IDOC that is consistent with Plaintiff's religious beliefs and spiritual practices.

         While Plaintiff was incarcerated at Centralia, he was served a standard prison diet. The diet included foods that are considered "unclean" in certain religions, including Plaintiff's religion. Consumption of this diet placed a substantial burden on his religious dietary practices. Even so, he was generally able to set aside the "unclean" foods and supplement the standard prison fare with items purchased from the commissary. After being punished with segregation and demotion to C-grade status, however, Plaintiff's food options were limited. He could no longer supplement his diet and became malnourished. In six months, he lost forty-five pounds. To maintain his physical health, Plaintiff was forced to consume "unclean" foods ( id. at 50).

         Following his transfer to Pinckneyville, Plaintiff immediately requested a kosher diet. But the facility had no chaplain and could not approve his religious dietary request without one. Plaintiff spoke with dietary officers and members of the health care staff about the issue. No one could offer him assistance.

         In protest, Plaintiff went on a hunger strike for three days. The staff at Pinckneyville ignored his protest. They did not document the hunger strike and gave away his meal tray to other inmates.

         On July 21, 2014, Plaintiff met with Chaplain Keim to discuss his request for a kosher diet. Plaintiff completed the paperwork necessary to obtain a religious diet. He also explained that he was requesting a kosher diet because it was the only meal package that would accommodate his unique Pagan dietary needs. The chaplain ...

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