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O'Carroll v. Lanigan

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

October 5, 2017

BRENDAN O'CARROLL, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER GARY M. LANIGAN, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          ROBERT B. KUGLER United States District Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Brendan O'Carroll is a state prisoner who is proceeding pro se with a civil rights complaint. Currently pending before this Court is defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). For the following reasons, the motion to dismiss will be granted in part.

         II. BACKGROUND

         The Court recites the facts in the light most favorable to plaintiff. Mr. O'Carroll is a convicted and sentenced state prisoner presently confined in Southern State Correctional Facility (“SSCF”), New Jersey. He practices Odinism, also known as Asatru, a religion worshipping the Norse pantheon. Prior to November 2016, Odinist inmates in SSCF were permitted to wear metal Thor's Hammer medallions as the symbol of their faith.

         Mr. O'Carroll sought to order a medallion from an approved vendor following the New Jersey Department of Corrections' (“NJDOC”) specifications: “must be from source of sale, Maximum value of $25.00, no larger than 2” x 2”, gold or silver in color, and a maximum chain length of 24 inches and the chains value can not exceed $5.00.” A fellow practitioner informed plaintiff that there was a notice from SSCF's mailroom stating metal Thor's Hammer medallions were no longer allowed in the facility. Any medallion had to be constructed out of wood. Plaintiff and two other practitioners approached a sergeant and asked why metal hammer medallions were no longer permitted. After making a phone call, the sergeant informed the inmates that the policy had changed on March 18, 2016. A memo from SSCF Administrator C. Ray Hughes dated December 12, 2016 confirming this policy was posted in the inmates' living areas on December 16, 2016.

         Plaintiff alleges Christian and Muslim prisoners are permitted to wear metal medallions with their religious symbols and are provided other benefits within SSCF that Odinist inmates are not, i.e., regular religious services and religious texts. He filed suit alleging violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, Article 1 of the New Jersey Constitution, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, (“RLUIPA”), and New Jersey's “Fundamental Fairness Act”. This Court granted Plaintiff's in forma pauperis application and permitted the complaint to proceed after screening pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915.

         Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Mr. O'Carroll did not file a response in opposition to the motion.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         When considering a motion to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim, Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the Court must accept all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. A motion to dismiss may be granted only if the plaintiff has failed to set forth fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests that make such a claim plausible on its face. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007). Although Rule 8 does not require “detailed factual allegations, ” it requires “more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

         In reviewing the sufficiency of a complaint, the Court must “tak[e] note of the elements [the] plaintiff must plead to state a claim. Second, it should identify allegations that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. Finally, [w]hen there are well-pleaded factual allegations, [the] court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Connelly v. Lane Const. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 787 (3d Cir. 2016) (alterations in original) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         i. First Amendment Claims

          Mr. O'Carroll alleges defendants violated his First Amendment rights to practice his religion and to free speech. “[A] prison inmate retains those First Amendment rights that are not inconsistent with his status as a prisoner or with the legitimate penological objectives of the corrections system.” Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S. 817, 822 (1974). “[W]hen a prison regulation impinges on inmates' constitutional rights, the regulation is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.” Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 89 (1987). To make out a claim for denial of an individual's free exercise rights ...


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