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Lyons v. Tennessee Department of Correction

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee

December 12, 2019



          Thomas A. Varlan United States District Judge.

         On May 29, 2019, Plaintiff, a prisoner, and his cellmate were taken to a disciplinary hearing where they learned that jail officials had discovered and seized materials from their cell believed to be associated with the security threat group the Aryan Nation [Doc. 2-1 p. 5]. Plaintiff specifically lists the seized materials as a written copy of the Odinist/Asatru “The Elder Futhark, ” which he states is “approved by federal law as required material directly related to my faith which is listed on my record as Odinist, ” and written copies of “Robert Greene's 48 Laws of Power” which he states is “also approved on the mailing list for all inmates” [Id.].

         Jail officials told Plaintiff and his cellmate that if one of them did not take responsibility for the seized materials, both would be punished [Doc. 2-1 p. 5]. At the disciplinary hearing, Plaintiff contested Defendant Patterson's characterization of the seized documents as associated with a security threat group as an error [Id. at 5-6]. After discussions with his advisors, [1] however, Plaintiff ultimately accepted responsibility for the material by pleading guilty to possession thereof after being advised that if he did so, he would not lose the ability to participate in a “parole-mandated technical violators diversion program” and his custody level would not change [Id. at 6]. Despite this advice, however, after his guilty plea, Plaintiff's custody level was raised to medium and he is no longer able to go to the technical violators diversion program, and Plaintiff asserts that this amounts to discrimination against him based upon his religion in violation of his constitutional rights and Tennessee Department of Correction (“TDOC”) policies [Id. at 6-7].

         Plaintiff has sued the Tennessee Department of Correction, Corporal David Patterson, and Tina Ennis [Doc. 2 p. 3]. As relief, Plaintiff seeks a return to minimum custody, to resume his Tennessee violators diversion program, dismissal of the disciplinary report and resulting “stg” confirmation, and compensatory damages [Id. at 4].

         I. STANDARD

         Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, district courts must screen prisoner complaints and shall, at any time, sua sponte dismiss any claims that are frivolous or malicious, fail to state a claim for relief, or are against a defendant who is immune. See, e.g., 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B) and 1915(A); Benson v. O'Brian, 179 F.3d 1014 (6th Cir. 1999). The dismissal standard the Supreme Court articulated in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009) and in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) “governs dismissals for failure state a claim under [28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B) and 1915A]” Hill v. Lappin, 630 F.3d 468, 470-71 (6th Cir. 2010). Thus, to survive an initial PLRA review, a complaint “must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570).

         In order to state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must establish that he was deprived of a federal right by a person acting under color of state law. 42 U.S.C. § 1983; Polk County v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 315 (1981). Courts liberally construe pro se pleadings filed in civil rights cases and hold them to a less stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972).

         II. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff relies on a grievance that he attached to his complaint to set forth his § 1983 claims and asserts that the facts therein allege a violation the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(1)-(2)[2] [Doc. 2 p. 3; Doc. 2-1]. In the incorporated grievance, Plaintiff cites Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, and national origin [Doc. 2-1 p. 6-7]. Title VI does not prohibit discrimination based on religion and such claims by prisoners are cognizable under § 1983, Barhite v. Caruso, 377 Fed. App'x 508, 511 (6th Cir. 2010), however. Accordingly, the Court liberally construes the complaint as asserting that the disciplinary incident underlying Plaintiff's grievance violated Plaintiff's right to Equal Protection under the law, his First Amendment right to free exercise of his religion, and RLUIPA.[3] The Court will first address the sufficiency of Plaintiff's complaint as to Defendants TDOC and Ennis before reaching the sufficiency of Plaintiff's allegations in support of these claims as to Defendant Patterson, however.

         A. Defendants TDOC and Ennis

         First, as to Defendant TDOC, nothing in Plaintiff's complaint allows the Court to plausibly infer that a custom or policy of TDOC caused the alleged violations of his constitutional rights. Rather, Plaintiff alleges that the charge against him for possessing the seized materials and the resulting punishment were based on an erroneous characterization of the materials as promoting the “Aryan Nation” when the materials were permissible religious materials for prisoners. As such, the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted under § 1983 as to Defendant TDOC. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 691 (1978) (holding that a municipality may not be liable under § 1983 through a respondeat superior theory, but may be responsible for an alleged constitutional deprivation if there is a direct causal link between a policy or custom of the entity and the alleged constitutional violation).

         Also, Plaintiff's complaint contains no factual allegations from which the Court can plausibly infer that Defendant Ennis was personally involved in any violation of Plaintiff's constitutional rights. As such, the complaint likewise fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted as to her. Frazier v. Michigan, 41 Fed.Appx. 762, 764 (6th Cir. 2002) (providing that “a complaint must allege that the defendants were personally involved in the alleged deprivation of federal rights” to state a claim upon which relief may be granted under § 1983).

         B. Equal Protection

         Next, while Plaintiff states that Defendant Patterson drafted the disciplinary report against him and attended the disciplinary hearing at which Plaintiff pleaded guilty to the charge against him, Plaintiff has not set forth any facts from which the Court can plausibly infer that Defendant Patterson treated Plaintiff differently than similarly situated classes of inmates in a manner that “bears no rational relation to any legitimate penal interest” as required to state a claim ...

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