Goff v. Chambers-Smith, et al
Opinion and Order. Judge J. Philip Calabrese on 6/4/2021. (Y,A)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF OHIO
JOHN THOMAS GOFF,
CASE NO. 1:21-cv-315
JUDGE J. PHILIP CALABRESE
OPINION AND ORDER
Pro se Plaintiff John Thomas Goff, a prisoner in the Grafton Correctional Institution
(“GCI”), filed this civil rights complaint against GCI’s Warden Keith Foley, Chaplain Ronald
Smith, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (“ODRC”) Director Annette
Chambers-Smith, ODRC Religious Services Director Michael Davis, and “DWSS” Steven
Reynolds. (ECF No. 1.)
In his brief complaint, Plaintiff asserts he “applied for religious accommodation for the
observance of a Passover seder 8, October 2019.” (Id. at 3.) He does not clearly identify the
“religious accommodation” for which he applied. He states only that “[t]he request stipulated
that due to the lack of affiliation with the accepted Jewish Rabbi who is permitted to provide
ceremonial items for Jewish inmates, the rabbi would not provide those same items for [him]”
and that “[a] request [was made] for the Department of Corrections to provide a vendor for those
items so [that] interested inmates may purchase their own items for private, in cell observance of
Passover.” (Id.) Accordingly, it appears the accommodation the plaintiff requested was that he
and other inmates not recognized by the visiting Rabbi be provided a private vendor from which
they could purchase religious items.
Plaintiff asserts the “same request” was made, and denied, in three previous years and
that he sent a letter to Defendant Chambers-Smith on December 6, 2019 “notifying her that there
was significant reason to believe [that his] request would again be denied.” (Id. at 3-4.) He then
states: “A Response was made on 1/27/2020 signed by Chaplain Ronald Smith which stated that
[Smith] did not recommend approval of [the] accommodation. Signers included Chaplain Smith,
DWSS Steven Reynolds, and Warden Keith Foley.” (Id.) Finally, he states that “[a]n appeal
was timely filed on February 23, 2020, for which no reply from the Religious Services Director
Dr. Michael Davis has ever been received.” (Id.)
On its face, Plaintiff’s complaint does not allege any specific legal claim or claims
against each of the defendants arising from these allegations. The civil cover sheet he filed with
his complaint indicates he asserts a cause of action for “Denial of equal access to religious
accommodation” under the “Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the 1st and 14th
Am[endments]” and the Religious Land Use for Institutionalized Persons Act. His complaint
sets forth the following request for relief:
The provision of access by all inmates to their designated religious practice.
Access to all of the already approved items for every religion to success in proper
practice of their religion. If the State will not provide those items, vendors and
free access to them should be provided for all prisoners, their families and outside
religious organizations wishing to donate needed items should not be impinged.
The office of Chaplain should be abolished and the name changed to ‘Religious
Service Provider,’ to more correctly communicate the office holders, their job
task responsibilities, and to avoid such defenses as Chaplain Smiths denial that is
not his job. Ceasing the need for outside approval to practice one’s own religion.
Ceasing the denial of religious accommodations which are approved for others. A
moderate standard be set of $5,000.00 for each infraction now and in the future.
(Id. at 5. 1)
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Plaintiff’s application to proceed in forma pauperis has been granted by separate order.
Therefore, his complaint is now before the Court for initial screening under 28 U.S.C.
§§ 1915(e)(2)(B) and 1915A. Those statutes expressly require federal district courts to screen all
in forma pauperis complaints filed in federal court, and all complaints in which a prisoner seeks
redress from governmental employees, and to dismiss before service any such complaint that the
court determines 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 Hill v.
Lappin, 630 F.3d 468, 470–71 (6th Cir. 2010). Pro se pleadings generally are liberally construed
and held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers, Williams v. Curtin,
631 F.3d 380, 383 (6th Cir. 2011), but even a pro se complaint must set forth sufficient factual
matter, accepted as true, to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face to survive
See Hill, 630 F.3d at 470-71 (holding that the dismissal standard articulated in
Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), and Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007),
applies to review of pro se prisoner cases under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B) and 1915A).
“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.”
Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Although the plausibility standard is not equivalent to a “‘probability
requirement,’. . . it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.”
Plaintiff also indicates that his action is related to a prior case he filed in federal court
against some of the same defendants here, in which he complained that he was denied a religious
accommodation in 2017 with respect to kosher food. His prior case was dismissed on September
12, 2018, for failure to state a claim pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B) and 1915A and
Rule 12(b)(6). See Goff v. Warden Lashann Eppinger, No. 1: 18 CV 671 (N.D. Ohio) (Gwin, J.).
Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court
to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged—but it has not
‘show[n]’—that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Id. at 679 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2)).
Further, a complaint may be dismissed for failure to state a claim if it fails to “give the defendant
fair notice of what the. . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at
Upon review, the Court finds that the Plaintiff’s complaint must be dismissed in
accordance with 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B) and 1915A.
As an initial matter, there is no vicarious liability in actions asserting federal civil rights
violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. To state a claim under Section 1983 for the violation of a
civil right, “a plaintiff must plead that each Government-official defendant, through the official’s
own individual actions, has violated the Constitution.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 676. Liability must be
based on each defendant’s own “active unconstitutional behavior.” Bass v. Robinson, 167 F.3d
1041, 1048 (6th Cir. 1999). The plaintiff must allege facts suggesting that each defendant “did
more than play a passive role in the alleged violation or showed mere tacit approval of the
[challenged action].” Id.
Here, even if the Court liberally construes Plaintiff’s complaint as asserting claims under
Section 1983, 2 he has not alleged facts sufficient to demonstrate the personal involvement of any
Defendant other than Chaplain Smith in the misconduct he alleges, i.e., the non-approval of his
claimed accommodation request.
Section 1983 is the means by which a plaintiff may seek relief for the deprivation of
rights secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S.
386, 393-94 (1989).
The only allegation the plaintiff makes as to Defendants Chambers-Smith and Davis is
that Chambers-Smith failed to respond to his December 2019 letter and Davis did not reply to his
appeal. These allegations are insufficient to impose liability on supervisory employees. The
Sixth Circuit has clearly stated that “[t]he ‘denial of administrative grievances or the [mere]
failure to act’ by prison officials does not subject supervisors to liability under § 1983.” Grinter
v. Knight, 532 F.3d 567, 576 (6th Cir. 2008) (citing Shehee v. Luttrell, 199 F.3d 295, 300 (6th
Cir. 1999)). The only allegation Plaintiff sets forth as to Defendants Reynolds and Foley is that
they were “signers” on Chaplain Smith’s non-approval of his alleged accommodation request.
But this allegation alone is also insufficient to impose liability. That Reynolds and Foley were
“signers” is insufficient to permit a plausible inference that they were actively involved, or
played more than merely “a passive role,” in Chaplain Smith’s decision.
Accordingly, any claim under Section 1983 the plaintiff is asserting against Defendants
Foley, Chambers-Smith, Davis, and Reynolds is subject to dismissal. See Cardinal v. Metrich,
564 F.3d 794, 803 (6th Cir. 2009) (affirming grant of summary judgment on a Section 1983
claim against a prison warden where there was no allegation that the warden was “actively
involved in the denial of kosher food”).
Further, the plaintiff’s allegations are insufficient to state any plausible claim under
RLUIPA or the First and Fourteenth Amendments against any Defendant in any case.
The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment provides that Congress shall make no
law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. See Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S 296, 303
(1940). Prisoners do not lose the right to free exercise of their religion by virtue of their
incarceration, but that right is subject to reasonable restrictions and limitations. See Walker v.
Mintzes, 771 F.2d 920, 929 (6th Cir. 1985). To establish a free exercise First Amendment claim,
a plaintiff must initially show that the belief or practice he seeks to protect is religious in his
“own scheme of things”; his belief is sincerely held; and the defendant’s behavior infringes upon
the practice or belief. See Kent v. Johnson, 821 F.2d 1220, 1224-25 (6th Cir. 1987) “[T]he
touchstone for determining whether a religious belief is entitled to free-exercise protection is an
assessment of whether the beliefs professed. . . are sincerely held, not whether the belief is
accurate or logical.” Colvin v. Caruso, 605 F.3d 282, 298 (6th Cir. 2010).
Similarly, under RLUIPA, the focus is on the sincerity of the prisoner’s professed
religious belief. 3 See id. (citing Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709, 725 n.13 (2005) (citations
omitted)). “In order to state a claim for a RLUIPA violation, an inmate must allege that his
‘request for an accommodation [is] sincerely based on a religious belief’ and that the defendant’s
‘policy substantially burdened that exercise of religion.’” Crawford v. Core Civic, No. 3:18-CV00800, 2019 WL 1440288, at *2 (M.D. Tenn. Mar. 29, 2019) (quoting Holt v. Hobbs, 135 S. Ct.
853, 862 (2015)).
“[T]he ‘mere assertion of a religious belief does not automatically trigger First
Amendment protections. To the contrary, only those beliefs which are both sincerely held and
religious in nature are entitled to constitutional protections.’”
Hernandez v. Pugh,
No. 4:12CV2040, 2013 WL 30194, at *2 (N.D. Ohio Jan. 2, 2013) (quoting Dehart v. Horn, 227
F.3d 47, 51 (3d Cir. 2000) (en banc)).
To the extent Plaintiff purports to assert claims under the Free Exercise Clause of the
First Amendment and RLUIPA, his complaint fails to state a plausible claim because the
statements and allegations he sets forth in his pleading do not permit a plausible inference that
RLUIPA provides in relevant part that “[n]o government shall impose a substantial
burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to [a prison] . . . unless the
government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person: (1) is in furtherance of a
the accommodation he requested was based on his sincerely-held religious belief. In fact, his
pleading suggests the opposite. The plaintiff does not make any specific allegation as to his
religious beliefs or his belief system (indeed, he does not even specifically allege in his
complaint that he is Jewish), and he specifically alleges that the visiting Rabbi authorized to
provide ceremonial items to Jewish inmates does not recognize him. The Court cannot draw the
reasonable inference from the allegations the plaintiff makes that his request to obtain
ceremonial items for Passover from an outside vendor derives from a sincerely held religious
belief. For this reason, his complaint fails to state plausible claims under both the Free Exercise
Clause of the First Amendment and RLUIPA.
See Hernandez v. United States, No. 4:11 CV
1737, 2011 WL 5971028, at *4-5 (N.D. Ohio Nov. 28, 2011) (dismissing First Amendment and
RFRA claims regarding the service of kosher food on the grounds that plaintiff made no
allegations regarding his own belief system or allege that his desire for kosher food was based on
sincerely-held religious belief); see also Davismoore v. Davis, No. 1:18 CV 1468, 2019 WL
1558679, at 3-4 (N.D. Ohio Apr. 10, 2019) (dismissing First Amendment and RLUIPA claims
on the same grounds on initial screening).
Additionally, Plaintiff’s complaint is subject to dismissal to the extent he purports to
assert claims under the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Equal Protection Clause prohibits discrimination by government which either burdens a
fundamental right, targets a suspect class, or intentionally treats one differently than others
similarly situated without any rational basis for the difference.” Rondigo, L.L.C. v. Township of
Richmond, 641 F.3d 673, 681-82 (6th Cir. 2011) (citing Radvansky v. City of Olmsted Falls, 395
F.3d 291, 312 (6th Cir. 2005)). “The ‘threshold element of an equal protection claim is disparate
compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that
compelling governmental interest.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc–1(a).
treatment[.]’” Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, Inc. v. Napolitano, 648 F.3d 365, 379 (6th Cir.
2011) (quoting Scarbrough v. Morgan Cnty. Bd. of Educ., 470 F.3d 250, 260 (6th Cir. 2006));
see also Ervin v. Davis, No. 2:16-cv-186, 2017 WL 2573251, at *4 (S.D. Ohio June 14, 2017)
(“In order for the actions of prison officials to rise to the level of a violation of the Equal
Protection Clause, a prisoner must show that he or she was treated differently than similarly
situated prisoners and that there was no rational basis for the difference in treatment.”).
Other than his own unclear and purely conclusory statement in his request for relief that
he seeks an order “[c]easing the denial of religious accommodations which are approved for
others,” Plaintiff does not set forth any factual allegations in his pleading plausibly suggesting he
was subjected to disparate treatment. Because he has not alleged facts from which a plausible
inference can be drawn that he was treated differently from any other similarly situated inmate
with respect to a similar accommodation request, his complaint fails to state a plausible equal
Plaintiff’s complaint sets forth no specific allegations regarding a constitutional due
process claim. He does not state whether he asserts a procedural due process claim, a substantive
due process claim, or both, and his complaint is devoid of allegations as to a basis for such a
claim. The liberal construction afforded pro se pleadings does not require courts to conjure
unpled allegations for pro se plaintiffs or to “guess at the nature” of their claims. Wells v.
Brown, 891 F.2d 591, 594 (6th Cir. 1989). To the extent the plaintiff purports to assert a
violation of his constitutional due process rights, his complaint fails to meet basic pleading
requirements or set forth allegations sufficient to state a plausible claim. See Lillard v. Shelby
County Bd. of Educ., 76 F.3d 716, 726 (6th Cir. 1996) (in the context of a civil rights claim,
conclusory allegations of unconstitutional conduct without specific factual allegations fail to
state claim under § 1983; some factual basis for such claims must be set forth in pleadings).
For all of the foregoing reasons, the Court dismisses Plaintiff’s complaint pursuant to
28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B) and 1915A. The Court further certifies pursuant to 28 U.S.C.
§ 1915(a)(3) that an appeal from this decision could not be taken in good faith.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Dated: June 4, 2021
J. Philip Calabrese
United States District Judge
Northern District of Ohio
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