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Dennison v. Dennison

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

May 30, 2018

CHARLES DENT, # N-42308, Plaintiff,
v.
JEFFERY M. DENNISON, L. WALKER, LT. PICKFORD, SAMUEL STERRETT, and LANCE MAHAN, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          HERNDON, District Judge

         Plaintiff is a long-term prisoner, currently incarcerated at Shawnee Correctional Center (“Shawnee”), and has brought this pro se civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff claims that Defendants conspired to retaliate against him for filing complaints against Mahan, by excluding him from religious services, in violation of the Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”). In addition to the Complaint, Plaintiff has filed a motion for a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction. (Doc. 3). 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 screen prisoner complaints to filter out non-meritorious claims. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The Court must 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). 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. 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 Arnett v. Webster, 658 F.3d 742, 751 (7th Cir. 2011); Rodriguez v. Plymouth Ambulance Serv., 577 F.3d 816, 821 (7th Cir. 2009).

         Applying these standards, the Court finds that Plaintiff's claims survive threshold review under § 1915A.

         The Complaint

         The Defendants in this action are Shawnee Warden Dennison, Assistant Warden Walker, Lt. Pickford, Shawnee Chaplain Sterrett, and Mahan, who is a volunteer pastor at Shawnee. On April 10, 2018, after Plaintiff filed a sexual harassment complaint against Mahan under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (“PREA”), Defendants retaliated by removing Plaintiff from 3 Protestant religious services which he had been attending for over 35 years in prison. As a result, Plaintiff was only permitted to attend Catholic mass once per week. (Doc. 1, p. 11).

         Plaintiff includes much background information regarding his religious affiliations and activities during his years of incarceration. (Doc. 1, pp. 6-11). His original designated religion was Baptist, however, he has routinely attended religious services of other faiths as well, including Catholic services. (Doc. 1, p. 6). In 2009, Plaintiff changed his religious affiliation from Baptist to Catholic. In 2012, after a prison transfer, the chaplain approved Plaintiff's attendance at Baptist and other Protestant services, even though he remained designated as a Catholic and continued to attend Catholic mass. He continued attending Baptist, Protestant, and Catholic services from 2012-2016. (Doc. 1, p. 7).

         On May 10, 2016, Plaintiff was transferred to Shawnee. The chaplain at that time approved him to attend Catholic mass, Baptist, and Protestant services. Plaintiff asserts that the policy, custom, and practice at all prisons has been to allow an inmate to attend any requested chapel services, up to a total of 4 services, regardless of the prisoner's designated religious affiliation. (Doc. 1, p. 8).

         In November or December 2017, Sterrett became the Shawnee Chaplain. Plaintiff had several conversations with Sterrett to obtain his approval to attend Sunday Protestant chapel services consistent with the scheduled times for the housing wing where Plaintiff was assigned. (Doc. 1, p. 8). One such encounter occurred on January 15, 2018, after Plaintiff was moved to a different housing area. (Doc. 1, pp. 9-10). Sterrett always approved Plaintiff's requests. At no time did Sterrett ever inform Plaintiff that he could not attend Protestant services due to his Catholic designation, of which Sterrett was aware. In March 2018, Plaintiff approached Sterrett during Tuesday morning Catholic mass, and asked permission to attend Friday night Protestant services; Sterrett approved. (Doc. 1, p. 10). After this, Plaintiff regularly attended 4 chapel services: Sunday morning Protestant chapel, Tuesday morning Catholic mass, Tuesday night Protestant services, and Friday night Protestant services. (Doc. 1, p. 19; Doc. 1-1, p. 6).

         Since January 2017, Plaintiff had routinely attended the Sunday Protestant chapel services at Shawnee, which were conducted by volunteer pastor Mahan. (Doc. 1, pp. 11-12). Plaintiff is gay, and during these services, he sat together with other gay, bisexual, and transgender inmates so they could support each other. During Sunday services, Mahan regularly verbalized his homophobic views, and “preach[ed] hate against the gay, bisexual, and transgender prisoners” at Shawnee. (Doc. 1, p. 12). Mahan's statements were “degrading, humiliating, and offensive” to Plaintiff and his fellow gay, bisexual, and transgender (“LGBT”) inmates, but they continued to attend chapel.

         On or around March 2018, Mahan's began to “sexually harass” Plaintiff and his fellow LGBT prisoners, for example, by sitting directly behind Plaintiff's group and making offensive and derogatory comments, while shaking his head. Id. Mahan escalated his harassment as he preached, including comments and questions such as, “how could a man masturbate another man, ” and “do you fantasize about another man.” (Doc. 1, p. 13). Plaintiff feared that these derogatory remarks, made by a “person of authority, ” could worsen the threats LGBT inmates already faced to their safety and security at Shawnee. Id.

         On approximately March 8, 2018, a transgender inmate (Spoden) who regularly attended Mahan's services and sang in the choir lodged a verbal complaint with Sterrett about Mahan's conduct. Sterrett told Spoden that he would direct Mahan to cease his homophobic speeches and advocacy of violence against LGBT prisoners. (Doc. 1, pp. 13-14). However, Mahan did not stop his comments, but instead intensified his targeting of LGBT inmates. Mahan told another inmate that he (Mahan) would not be disciplined because Sterrett and Assistant Warden Walker were “rocking with him.” (Doc. 1, p. 14).

         After Spoden's complaint, Mahan announced during chapel that another inmate (Madison) had a “testimony, ” after which Madison took the podium. Madison proceeded to spout hateful and derogatory language against the LGBT prisoners in attendance. Madison called out those prisoners' names and advocated violence against them. (Doc. 1, p. 14). These comments drew cheers from the approximately 50 non-LGBT inmates attending the chapel service. Mahan allowed Madison to continue with this rant for about 10 minutes. While Madison spoke, inmate Spoden approached Mahan to express her frustration with Madison's preaching of hate and violence, but Mahan responded by saying, “he is only preaching God's word.” (Doc. 1, p. 15; Doc. 1-1, pp. 8-11).

         On April 8, 2018, Plaintiff was sitting with his LGBT group as the chapel service started. He and most of the inmates in attendance were standing, singing along with the choir, and clapping. (Doc. 1, p. 15). Mahan suddenly pointed at Plaintiff and ordered him to leave the chapel. When Plaintiff asked why, Mahan responded that it was because Plaintiff was talking. Plaintiff denies this, stating that he was singing with the congregation and choir, and notes that because of the singing and general noise level, it would have been impossible for Mahan to hear any person talking. Plaintiff asserts that the only reason he was removed was because of Mahan's homophobic views, and because he is a “senior member” and leader within the LGBT community. (Doc. 1, p. 16).

         After Mahan kicked Plaintiff out of the chapel service, Plaintiff wrote a PREA complaint (directed to Walker, who is the PREA compliance officer) against Mahan for sexual harassment, based on the many inappropriate sexual comments Mahan had made over the past year. Plaintiff also filed an emergency grievance against Mahan, seeking to have Mahan barred from entering Shawnee because he had advocated violence against LGBT inmates attending Sunday services. (Doc. 1-1, pp. 1-2). Dennison denied the emergency grievance, and Plaintiff filed a regular grievance against Mahan for allowing inmate Madison to advocate violence against LGBT inmates. (Doc. 1, p. 16; Doc. 1-1, pp. 3-4). That grievance was sent to Sterrett for review. (Doc. 1, p. 17; Doc. 1-1, p. 5). Immediately after Sterrett issued his response (which referred the PREA matter to Internal Affairs), Sterrett retaliated against Plaintiff by removing him from the list to attend the Tuesday night and Friday night Protestant services, which Sterrett had previously approved. (Doc. 1, p. 17; Doc. 1-1, p. 7).

         On April 10, 2018, Lt. Pickford interviewed Plaintiff regarding the PREA complaint against Mahan. Id. Plaintiff described Mahan's conduct in detail, and provided Pickford with names of other LGBT inmates who had been affected. (Doc. 1, p. 18). Pickford “leaked” this information to Walker, Mahan, and Sterrett. After this, inmate Spoden was also removed from all her religious services for cooperating with the investigation. (Doc. 1, pp. 18, 22; Doc. 1-1, pp. 8-11).

         Plaintiff filed a grievance against Sterrett over the termination of his attendance at the 2 services, and wrote to Walker and Pickford. (Doc. 1, p. 20; Doc. 1-1, pp. 12-13). Walker and Pickford did not respond. Sterrett responded to this grievance by stating that Plaintiff was removed from the Protestant religious services because he is identified as Catholic and may only attend Catholic services. (Doc. 1, pp. 22-23, Doc. 1-1, p. 12). Plaintiff concludes that Sterrett's statement was an attempt to “shield his retaliation, ” by citing an Administrative Code section which contradicts the stated reason for his action. (Doc. 1, p. 23). Plaintiff asserts that from his personal knowledge, over half of the ...


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