Luther v. White et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER signed by Senior Judge Thomas B. Russell on 12/19/2017. The Court will enter a separate Order Regarding Service and Scheduling Order to govern the development of the remaining claims.cc: Plaintiff, pro se; Defendants; General Counsel, Justice & Public Safety Cabinet, Office of Legal Counsel (MNM)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF KENTUCKY
DION L. LUTHER
CIVIL ACTION NO. 5:17CV-P138-TBR
RANDY WHITE et al.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff, Dion L. Luther, proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, initiated this civilrights action. This matter is now before the Court for screening pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A
and McGore v. Wrigglesworth, 114 F.3d 601 (6th Cir. 1997), overruled on other grounds by
Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199 (2007). For the following reasons, some of Plaintiff’s claims will be
dismissed, and others will be allowed to proceed.
I. STATEMENT OF FACTS
Plaintiff is incarcerated at the Kentucky State Penitentiary (KSP). He sues the following
KSP employees in their individual and official capacities: Warden Randy White; Deputy
Warden Skyla Grief; Program Coordinator Dan Smith; Lieutenants Terry Peede and Jesse
Coombs; and Sergeant George Rodriguez.
Plaintiff alleges that he arrived at KSP on January 12, 2017, at which time he was
informed by Defendant Coombs that he would have to comb out his dreadlocks; Plaintiff refused
to do so based on his religion -- Bobo Shanti Ras Tafari. Plaintiff alleges that he was then placed
in a very small security booth where Defendant Peede gave him a comb and a memorandum
from Defendant White stating that dreadlocks are not allowed in the restrictive housing unit
Plaintiff alleges that when he did not comb out his dreadlocks, Defendant Rodriguez
volunteered to remove the dreadlocks with clippers. Plaintiff alleges that his dreadlocks were
forcefully removed in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments and the Religious Land
Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). He asserts that Defendant Rodriguez yanked
at his hair, causing multiple lacerations on the back of Plaintiff’s head, where he developed a
rash because the clippers were unsanitary. Plaintiff states that he was given no medical attention
for the lacerations or rash.
Plaintiff next alleges that on April 18, 2017, he brought to the attention of then-chaplain
John Neece that he is obligated as part of his religion to wear a turban to become a priest of
Emperor Haile Selassi, but Chaplain Neece denied Plaintiff’s request after consulting the
Kentucky Department of Corrections (KDOC) Religious Reference Manual. Plaintiff states that
he then filed a grievance and “reached out” to Deputy Warden Steven Ford for help in getting a
turban approved. After researching the issue, Deputy Warden Ford and Chaplain Neece agreed
that Plaintiff would be allowed to purchase the “Crown Yari Ras Tafari headcovering as long
as it does not exceed the length of the Sikhs turban length documented in the KDOC religious
reference manual.” However, Plaintiff states that Defendant Smith is now controlling the
chaplain’s operation and has denied Plaintiff the opportunity to wear the turban in violation of
the First Amendment and RLUIPA. He also alleges that Defendant Smith denied both of
Plaintiff’s grievances “to thwart Plaintiff from taking advantage of the grievance procedure.”
Plaintiff next alleges that upon his arrival at KSP on January 12, 2017, his property was
“processed,” but he was not allowed to review his property at that time. Three days later,
Plaintiff states that he was given an inmate property form, at which time Plaintiff noticed that his
religious medallions and head gear had been confiscated. According to the complaint, Plaintiff
was told that his medallion was confiscated because it was homemade and that his headgear was
confiscated for being over the limit for religious headgear. Plaintiff alleges that the KDOC
Policy and Procedures provides that an inmate may have up to three religious headgears and that
the KDOC Religious Reference Manual does not require a specific type of medallion. He asserts
that he was not given an opportunity to send his religious property home. He alleges that his
First and Fourteenth Amendment and RLUIPA rights were violated by the confiscation of his
religious property. He also states that Defendant Smith never responded to a grievance written
on January 17, 2017.
Finally, Plaintiff alleges that he was denied his religious diet while KSP was on
“lockdown.” He states that during this time, which lasted “weeks,” inmates were only provided
with sack lunches consisting of bologna, milk, fruit, and chips. However, he alleges, that as part
of his religion, he abstains from all animal products, “vine foods,” and sugar. He states that
when he attempted to refuse the sack lunches, he was told that he would be put on “hunger
strike” and taken to the RHU. He alleges that Defendant Grief told him that he would have to be
satisfied with the substitute for bologna, i.e., white cheese. He states that when he told
Defendant Grief that white cheese is what he wanted, Defendant Grief became frustrated and
stormed off. Plaintiff alleges that he filed grievances regarding his diet after he had already been
mal-nourished for “8 days, and 18 plus meals.” He alleges that this refusal to accommodate his
diet during the lockdown violated his First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment and RLUIPA
Plaintiff attaches a number of documents to his complaint, including copies of grievances
As relief, Plaintiff asks for monetary damages and injunctive relief in the form of
allowing Rastafarians to wear dreadlocks and to allow Plaintiff to wear a turban.
Because Plaintiff is a prisoner seeking relief against governmental entities, officers,
and/or employees, this Court must review the instant action under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. Under
§ 1915A, the trial court must review the complaint and dismiss the complaint, or any portion of
the complaint, if the court determines that it is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim upon
which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from
such relief. See § 1915A(b)(1), (2); McGore v. Wrigglesworth, 114 F.3d at 604.
A claim is legally frivolous when it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact.
Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989). The trial court may, therefore, dismiss a claim as
frivolous where it is based on an indisputably meritless legal theory or where the factual
contentions are clearly baseless. Id. at 327. In order to survive dismissal for failure to state a
claim, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to
relief that is plausible on its face.’” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell
Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the
plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the
defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “[A]
district court must (1) view the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and (2) take
all well-pleaded factual allegations as true.” Tackett v. M & G Polymers, USA, LLC, 561 F.3d
478, 488 (6th Cir. 2009) (citing Gunasekera v. Irwin, 551 F.3d 461, 466 (6th Cir. 2009)
(citations omitted)). “A pleading that offers ‘labels and conclusions’ or ‘a formulaic recitation of
the elements of a cause of action will not do.’ Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders ‘naked
assertion[s]’ devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.’” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly,
550 U.S. at 555, 557).
Official-capacity claims for money damages
Plaintiff’s claims for damages against Defendants in their official capacities must be
dismissed. “Official-capacity suits . . . ‘generally represent  another way of pleading an action
against an entity of which an officer is an agent.’” Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 166
(1985) (quoting Monell v. New York City Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 691 n.55 (1978)).
Because Defendants are officers of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the claims brought against
them in their official capacities are deemed claims against the Commonwealth of Kentucky. See
Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. at 166. State officials sued in their official capacities for damages
are not “persons” subject to suit under § 1983. Will v. Mich. Dep’t of State Police, 491 U.S. 58,
71 (1989). Thus, because Plaintiff seeks damages from state officers in their official capacities,
he fails to allege cognizable claims against them under § 1983. Additionally, the Eleventh
Amendment acts as a bar to claims for damages against all Defendants in their official capacities,
Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. at 169, including the monetary-damages claims under RLUIPA.
See Sossamon v. Texas, 536 U.S. 277, 285 (2011) (holding that RLUIPA generally authorizes
only injunctive relief and does not waive a state’s sovereign immunity from suit for money
damages); Cardinal v. Metrish, 564 F.3d 794, 801 (6th Cir. 2009) (“[T]he Eleventh Amendment
bars plaintiff’s claim for monetary relief under RLUIPA.”). For these reasons, the officialcapacity claims for damages against all Defendants will be dismissed.
Claims against Defendant Grief
Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Grief told him that he would have to be satisfied with the
substitute for bologna, and when he told her that this substitution is what he wanted, she became
frustrated and stormed off. Thus, according to the complaint, Defendant Grief did not deny him
his requested substitution for bologna. Nor does her alleged frustration with Plaintiff rise to the
level of a constitutional violation. Even had she taken out her frustration on Plaintiff verbally,
which Plaintiff does not allege, such would not be a constitutional violation. See, e.g., Johnson
v. Moore, 7 F. App’x 382, 384 (6th Cir. 2001) (“Allegations of verbal harassment and verbal
abuse by prison officials toward an inmate do not constitute punishment within the meaning of
the Eighth Amendment.”). The claims against Defendant Grief will be dismissed for failure to
state a claim upon which relief may be granted.
Claims related to grievances
Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Smith denied both of Plaintiff’s grievances “to thwart
Plaintiff from taking advantage of the grievance procedure” and that Defendant Smith never
responded to a grievance written on January 17, 2017.
There is “no constitutionally protected due process interest in unfettered access to a
prison grievance procedure.” Walker v. Mich. Dep’t of Corr., 128 F. App’x 441, 445 (6th Cir.
2005). By the same token, a plaintiff cannot maintain a claim against a prison official based
solely on his or her denial of the plaintiff’s grievance. “The mere denial of a prisoner’s
grievance states no claim of constitutional dimension.” Alder v. Corr. Med. Servs., 73 F. App’x
839, 841 (6th Cir. 2003); Grinter v. Knight, 532 F.3d 567, 576 (6th Cir. 2008) (“The ‘denial of
administrative grievances or the failure to act’ by prison officials does not subject supervisors to
liability under § 1983.”) (quoting Shehee v. Luttrell, 199 F.3d 295, 300 (6th Cir. 1999)). Thus,
the Court will dismiss Plaintiff’s claims related to his prison grievances for failure to state a
claim upon which relief may be granted.
The Court will allow the remaining claims against Defendants White, Smith, Peede,
Coombs, and Rodriguez to go forward. In doing so, the Court expresses no opinion on the
ultimate merit of those claims.
III. CONCLUSION AND ORDER
For the foregoing reasons,
IT IS ORDERED that Plaintiff’s official-capacity claims for damages are DISMISSED
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1) for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted
and § 1915A(b)(2) for seeking monetary relief from Defendants immune from such relief. The
official-capacity claims for injunctive relief related to allowing Rastafarians to wear dreadlocks
and to allowing Plaintiff to wear a turban will proceed.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Plaintiff’s claims related to his grievances and
against Defendant Grief are DISMISSED pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1) for failure to
state a claim upon which relief may be granted.
The Clerk of Court is DIRECTED to terminate Skyla Grief as a Defendant in this action.
The Court will enter a separate Order Regarding Service and Scheduling Order to govern
the development of the remaining claims.
December 19, 2017
Plaintiff, pro se
General Counsel, Justice & Public Safety Cabinet, Office of Legal Counsel
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