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West v. Phelps

United States District Court, D. Delaware

December 10, 2017

PERRY PHELPS, DOC Commissioner, Defendants.



         The plaintiff, Christopher H. West ("West"), an inmate at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center ("VCC"), Smyrna, Delaware, appears pro se and was granted permission to proceed in forma pauperis. (D.I. 6.) West filed this lawsuit alleging violations of his civil rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[1] (D.I. 2.) The court proceeds to review and screen the complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) and § 1915A(b)(1).


         West alleges violations of the First and Eighth Amendment because he is denied the ability to practice his religious beliefs and rites of worship. West's religion includes elements of the Jewish faith incorporated into the religion of Thelema.[2] According to West, the practice of his religion includes a healthy kosher diet. West indicates that he has been offered a kosher diet, but has refused it as he does not consider it healthy. He also complains that his religious rights are denied because the defendant Delaware Department of Correction ("DOC") Commissioner Perry Phelps ("Phelps") does not allow him "to perform the great rite in worship of the Goddess" which includes consensual, legal sex with a female to represent the union with the descendent, West, and the Divine Goddess." (D.I. 2 at 5.) West alleges that the DOC policy set by Phelps has denied his repeated grievances requesting that he be allowed to perform the rite, as well as his requests for Tarot cards.

         West also alleges violations of the First, Fifth, and Eighth Amendments as applied to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment. He states that slavery is abhorrent to his religious beliefs and alleges that under Phelps' policies, in order to reduce his confinement level and speed his release, he must accept slavery and slave wages for his "work" as a tier janitor in violation of his constitutional rights. (Id. at 6.) West alleges that forcing him to accept the role of a slave or a role forced upon him for any reason is a crime against his "very religious bedrock." He further alleges slavery visited upon any person violates the Thirteenth Amendment.

         West seeks compensatory and punitive damages, as well as injunctive relief.


         A federal court may properly dismiss an action sua sponte under the screening provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) and § 1915A(b) if "the action 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." Ball v. Famiglio, 726 F.3d 448, 452 (3d Cir. 2013); see also 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2) (in formapauperis actions); 28 U.S.C. § 1915A (actions in which prisoner seeks redress from a governmental defendant); 42 U.S.C. § 1997e (prisoner actions brought with respect to prison conditions). The court must accept all factual allegations in a complaint as true and take them in the light most favorable to a pro se plaintiff. Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 229 (3d Cir. 2008); Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007). Because West proceeds pro se, his pleading is liberally construed and his complaint, "however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. at 94 (citations omitted).

         An action is frivolous if it "lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact." Neitzke v., Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989). Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) and § 1915A(b)(1), a court may dismiss a complaint as frivolous if it is "based on an indisputably meritless legal theory" or a "clearly baseless" or "fantastic or delusional" factual scenario. Neitzke, 490 at 327-28; Wilson v. Rackmill, 878 F.2d 772, 774 (3d Cir. 1989); see, e.g., Deutsch v. United States, 67 F.3d 1080, 1091-92 (3d Cir. 1995) (holding frivolous a suit alleging that prison officials took an inmate's pen and refused to give it back).

         The legal standard for dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) and § 1915A(b)(1) is identical to the legal standard used when ruling on Rule 12(b)(6) motions. Tourscher v. McCullough, 184 F.3d 236, 240 (3d Cir. 1999) (applying Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) standard to dismissal for failure to state a claim under § 1915(e)(2)(B)). However, before dismissing a complaint or claims for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted pursuant to the screening provisions of 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915 and 1915A, the court must grant West leave to amend his complaint unless amendment would be inequitable or futile. See Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 114 (3d Cir. 2002).

         A well-pleaded complaint must contain more than mere labels and conclusions. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009); Bell All. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007). A plaintiff must plead facts sufficient to show that a claim has substantive plausibility. See Johnson v. City of Shelby, __U.S.__, 135 S.Ct. 346, 347 (2014). A complaint may not dismissed, however, for imperfect statements of the legal theory supporting the claim asserted. See Id. at 346.

         Under the pleading regime established by Twombly and Iqbal, a court reviewing the sufficiency of a complaint must take three steps: (1) take note of the elements the plaintiff must plead to state a claim; (2) identify allegations that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth; and (3) when 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) (internal citations and quotations omitted). Elements are sufficiently alleged when the facts in the complaint "show" that the plaintiff is entitled to relief. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)). Deciding whether a claim is plausible will be a "context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id.


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