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Mitchell v. Cicchi

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 6, 2014

EDMOND C. CICCHI, et al., Defendant.

MICHAEL MITCHELL, Plaintiff pro se, New Brunswick, NJ.


PETER G. SHERIDAN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Michael Mitchell ("Plaintiff"), a pre-trial detainee currently confined at Middlesex County Adult Correction Center in New Brunswick, New Jersey, seeks to bring this action in forma pauperis. Based on his affidavit of indigence, the Court will grant Plaintiff's application to proceed in forma pauperis pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a) and order the Clerk of the Court to file the complaint.

At this time, the Court must review the complaint, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2) and 1915A to determine whether it should be dismissed as frivolous or malicious, for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or because it seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. For the reasons set forth below, the Court concludes that the complaint should be dismissed at this time.


Plaintiff brings this civil rights action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, [1] against Defendants Edmond Cicchi; Joyce Pierre; and Robert Grover. The following factual allegations are taken from the complaint and are accepted for purposes of this screening only. The Court has made no findings as to the veracity of Plaintiff's allegations.

Plaintiff, a Muslim, alleges that Defendants Pierre and Grover are preventing him from participating in the jail's August 10, 2013 "EID Festival, " which is a part of the Muslim faith. (Compl. ¶ 6.) Defendants have informed Plaintiff that he is not able to participate in the festival because of his maximum security status, however Plaintiff states that he has previously attended these festivals. ( Id. ) Moreover, Plaintiff states that he has previously attended "Juilah" and "Haled" services, which are held in the same room, with the same leader, as the festival. ( Id. ) Plaintiff is seeking injunctive and monetary relief.


A. Legal Standard

1. Standards for a Sua Sponte Dismissal

Per the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Pub. L. No. 104-134, §§ 801-810, 110 Stat. 1321-66 to 1321-77 (April 26, 1996) ("PLRA"), district courts must review complaints in those civil actions in which a prisoner is proceeding in forma pauperis, see 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B), seeks redress against a governmental employee or entity, see 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b), or brings a claim with respect to prison conditions, see 28 U.S.C. § 1997e. The PLRA directs district courts to sua sponte dismiss any claim that is frivolous, is 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. This action is subject to sua sponte screening for dismissal under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) and § 1915A because Plaintiff is proceeding as an indigent and is a prisoner.

According to the Supreme Court's decision in Ashcroft v. lqbal, "a pleading that offers labels or conclusions' or a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'" 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). To survive sua sponte screening for failure to state a claim[2], the complaint must allege "sufficient factual matter" to show that the claim is facially plausible. Fowler v. UPMS Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) (citation omitted). "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." Belmont v. MB Inv. Partners, Inc., 708 F.3d 470, 483 n.17 (3d Cir. 2012) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). Moreover, while pro se pleadings are liberally construed, " pro se litigants still must allege sufficient facts in their complaints to support a claim." Mala v. Crown Bay Marina, Int., 704 F.3d 239, 245 (3d Cir. 2013) (citation omitted).

2. Section 1983 Actions

A plaintiff may have a cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for certain violations of his constitutional rights. Section 1983 provides in relevant part:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory... subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress....

Thus, to state a claim for relief under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege, first, the violation of a right secured by the Constitution or flaws of the United States and, second, that the alleged deprivation was committed or caused by a person acting under color of state law. See West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); Malleus v. George, 641 F.3d 560, 563 (3d Cir. 2011).

B. Analysis

The First Amendment provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." U.S. Const. amend. I. The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment prohibits prison officials from denying an inmate "a reasonable opportunity of pursuing his faith." See Cruz v. Beto, 405 U.S. 319, 322 & n. 2 (1972). Secular beliefs are not protected by the Free Exercise Clause, and "[o]nly beliefs which are both sincerely held and religious in nature are protected under the First Amendment." Sutton v. Rasheed, 323 F.3d 236, 251 (3d Cir. 2003) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

Although "prisoners do not forfeit all constitutional protections, " it is settled that "[t]he fact of confinement as well as the legitimate goals and policies of the penal institution limits these retained constitutional rights." Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 546 (1979). Moreover, in deciding an inmate's First Amendment challenge, a court must recognize that "judgments regarding prison security are peculiarly within the province and professional expertise of corrections officials, and, in the absence of substantial evidence in the record to indicate that the officials have exaggerated their response to these considerations, courts should ordinarily defer to their expert judgment in such matters.'" Turner v. Salley, 482 U.S. 78, 86 (1987) (quoting Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S. 817, 827 (1974)). Prison administrators, "who are actually charged with and trained in the running of the particular institution under examination" are the best arbiters of the need for specific prison regulations to maintain institutional safety and promote prisoner rehabilitation. Bell, 441 U.S. at 562; see also Pell, 417 U.S. 817, 827 (1974) (courts should ordinarily defer to their expert judgment unless officials exaggerate the legitimacy of the interest behind the regulation). To guarantee due deference is shown to prison officials, courts examine the constitutionality of prison regulations using a reasonableness standard set forth in Turner, 482 U.S. 78. "[W]hen a prison regulation impinges on inmates' constitutional rights, the regulation is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests" 482 U.S. at 89. Turner requires courts to weigh four factors in determining reasonableness: "whether the regulation has a valid, rational connection' to a legitimate governmental interest; whether alternative means are open to inmates to exercise the asserted right; what impact an accommodation of the right would have on guards and inmates and prison resources; and whether, there are any ready alternatives' to the regulation." Overton v. Bazzetta, 539 U.S. 126, 132 (2003) (quoting Turner, 482 U.S. at 89-91); see also Fraise v. Terhune, 283 F.3d 506 (3d Cir. 2002).

In O'Lone v. Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 107 S.Ct. 2400, 96 L.Ed.2d 282 (1987), Muslim inmates challenged a New Jersey classification regulation which prohibited inmates assigned to outside work details from returning to the prison during the day except in the case of an emergency on Free Exercise grounds because it prevented Muslims assigned to outside work details from attending Juma services on Fridays. The Supreme Court rejected the Free Exercise claim, deferring to the determination of prison administrators that a rule preventing inmates from returning from outside work details was rationally related to security and rehabilitative concerns relating to work:

There are, of course, no alternative means of attending Jumuah; respondents' religious beliefs insist that it occur at a particular time. But the very stringent requirements as to the time at which Jumuah may be held may make it extraordinarily difficult for prison officials to assure that every Muslim prisoner is able to attend that service. While we in no way minimize the central importance of Jumuah to respondents, we are unwilling to hold that prison officials are required by the Constitution to sacrifice legitimate penological objectives to that end.

Id. at 351-52; see also Fraise v. Terhune, 383 F.3d 506 (3d Cir. 2002) (rejecting inmates' free exercise challenge to regulation designating Five Percent Nation as a security threat group and directing members' confinement in a security threat group unit); Williams v. Morton, 343 F.3d 212, 218 (3d Cir. 2003) (rejecting prisoners' free exercise claim and finding "that providing vegetarian meals, rather than Halal meals with meat, is rationally related to the legitimate penological interests in simplified food service, security, and staying within the prison's budget").

Due to Plaintiff's maximum security classification, some limitation on attendance at religious services appears to be rationally related to prison security concerns. Though Plaintiff alleges that he has previously attended prayer services and even the EID festivals themselves without incident, Plaintiff does not state, and it is not clear from the complaint, whether Plaintiff has attended the prayer services and previous festivals while having a maximum security classification. As a result, the nature of Plaintiff's claim is unclear to the Court. Specifically, it is not clear whether Plaintiff is alleging that it is a violation of his rights for all maximum security inmates to be denied participation in the EID festival, or whether he is arguing that his rights are being violated because he has previously been permitted to participate while having a maximum security status but is now being denied access. Therefore, the Court will dismiss the complaint without prejudice at this time under Iqbal. See Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210. Plaintiff will be granted leave to file an amended complaint to clarify his claim.


For the reasons stated above, the complaint will be dismissed in its entirety for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) and 1915A(b)(1). However, because it is conceivable that Plaintiff may be able to supplement his pleading with facts sufficient to overcome the deficiencies noted herein, the Court will grant Plaintiff leave to move to re-open this case and to file an amended complaint.[3] An appropriate order follows.

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