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Vangenderen v. Artis

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

April 10, 2019



          William C. Griesbach, Chief Judge United States District Court

         Plaintiff Clayton VanGenderen, who is currently confined in Redgranite Correctional Institution and representing himself, filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that his civil rights were violated. This matter comes before the court on VanGenderen's motion for leave to proceed without prepaying the full filing fee and to screen the complaint.

         Motion to Proceed without Prepayment of the Filing Fee

         VanGenderen has requested leave to proceed without prepayment of the full filing fee (in forma pauperis). A prisoner plaintiff proceeding in forma pauperis is required to pay the full amount of the $350.00 filing fee over time. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b)(1). VanGenderen has filed a certified copy of his prison trust account statement for the six-month period immediately preceding the filing of his complaint, as required under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(2), and has been assessed an initial partial filing fee of $1.26. The court directed VanGenderen to pay the initial partial filing fee or advise the court why he was unable to do so by April 12, 2019. VanGenderen has since filed a letter stating that he lacks the funds to pay even the initial partial filing fee and that he does not have family to send him money. Attached to the letter is a trust account statement showing a $0.00 balance as of February 22, 2019, and a $0.08 balance as of March 8, 2019. While the attached trust account statement does not conclusively demonstrate an inability to pay the fee as of late-March or early-April, it appears from VanGenderen's letter that he lacks the funds to pay the partial filing fee. Therefore, the court grants VanGenderen's motion to proceed in forma pauperis and waives the initial partial filing fee. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b)(4).

         Screening of the Complaint

         The court is required to screen complaints brought by prisoners seeking relief against a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The court must dismiss a complaint or portion thereof if the prisoner has raised claims that are legally “frivolous or malicious, ” that fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or that seek monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b). A claim is legally frivolous when it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact. Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 31 (1992); Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989); Hutchinson ex rel. Baker v. Spink, 126 F.3d 895, 900 (7th Cir. 1997).

         To state a cognizable claim under the federal notice pleading system, the plaintiff is required to provide a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that [he] is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). The complaint must contain sufficient factual matter “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)). The court accepts the factual allegations as true and liberally construes them in the plaintiff's favor. Turley v. Rednour, 729 F.3d 645, 651 (7th Cir. 2013). Nevertheless, the complaint's allegations “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citation omitted).

         Allegations of the Complaint

         VanGenderen alleges that, “just prior to release and during the time [he] was on parole/extended supervision, ” Defendants Blake Artis, Eric Podoski, and Kati Dumfield, who are Department of Corrections employees working in the Division of Community Corrections in Marathon County, Wisconsin, refused to allow him to attend the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Dkt. No. 1 at 2. VanGenderen claims his request was denied “by way of rules given stating I was to have no contact with that church.” Id. VanGenderen alleges that he “was not given any reason for the rule and was not given enough time to reach another chapel of the Mormon Church outside the county.” Id. at 2-3. VanGenderen also alleges that Artis and Podoski made slurs and rude comments about inmates attending church outside of prison and that Artis “attempted to supercede the orders of the family court refusing to allow [VanGenderen] to comply with those orders and attempted to make [him] cause an impass [sic] at the court-ordered mediation.” Id. at 3.

         The Court's Analysis

         As an initial matter, the complaint is not clear as to whether the defendants' basis for denying VanGenderen's attendance at the Church was a condition of his extended supervision and whether VanGenderen seeks to challenge the condition itself, the defendants' actions, or both. To the extent that VanGenderen seeks to challenge a condition of supervision, such as a restriction on his ability to attend religious services without prior consent from his supervising agent, see, e.g., Belton v. Betzhold, No. 12-CV-0053, 2012 WL 6094461, at *1 (E.D. Wis. Dec. 7, 2012), he must bring such a claim in a habeas corpus petition rather than in a § 1983 action. See Williams v. Wisconsin, 336 F.3d 576, 579-80 (7th Cir. 2003); Drollinger v. Milligan, 552 F.2d 1220, 1225 (7th Cir. 1977); Yoder v. Wis. Dep't of Corr., No. 03-C-193-C, 2004 WL 602647, at *7 (W.D. Wis. Mar. 11, 2004).

         To the extent that VanGenderen challenges the defendants' actions, he states a claim under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. A plaintiff states a free-exercise claim if he alleges a sincere religious belief and that his religious exercise has been substantially burdened. See Koger v. Bryan, 523 F.3d 789, 797-98 (7th Cir. 2008); Vision Church v. Vill. of Long Grove, 468 F.3d 975, 996-97 (7th Cir. 2006). A substantial burden on a prisoner's religious exercise violates the First Amendment “only if the burden is not reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest.” Powell v. Raemisch, No. 10-cv-202-bbc, 2010 WL 2429709, at *5 (W.D. Wis. June 11, 2010) (citing O'Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 350-51 (1987)). Construing VanGenderen's complaint liberally, as this court is required to do, Cesal v. Moats, 851 F.3d 714, 720 (7th Cir. 2017), VanGenderen states a free-exercise claim against the defendants because a sincere religious belief can be inferred from his allegations and the defendants' alleged refusal to allow VanGenderen to attend a Mormon church substantially burdens his religious exercise. VanGenderen may proceed against the defendants in their official capacities for prospective injunctive relief and in their individual capacities for monetary damages.

         VanGenderen's complaint appears to challenge the denial of his rights both while he was confined and after he was released on extended supervision. His allegations regarding the denial of his right to religious exercise that took place while he was in prison state a claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). See 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a). RLUIPA prohibits the government from imposing “a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution.” Id. Parolees do not meet the definition of “residing in” or being “confined to” any “institution.” See Belton, 2012 WL 6094461, at *1. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals previously held that RLUIPA's “substantial burden” language required a government action that rendered religious exercise “effectively impracticable.” Nelson v. Miller, 570 F.3d 868, 878 (7th Cir. 2009). The Seventh Circuit recently recognized, however, that the standard is “much easier to satisfy, ” though the court did not provide a working standard. See Jones v. Carter, 915 F.3d 1147, 1149-50 (7th Cir. 2019). VanGenderen's allegations are sufficient to state a RLUIPA claim because it can be inferred at this stage that denying him the ability to attend a Mormon church is not the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest. See § 2000cc-1(a)(1)-(2). VanGenderen may only pursue injunctive relief under RLUIPA. See Nelson, 570 F.3d at 889, abrogated on other grounds by Jones v. Carter, 915 F.3d 1147 (7th Cir. 2019); Powell, 2010 WL 2429709, at *5.

         VanGenderen's other allegations against Podoski and Artis do not state a claim. Podoski and Artis' “rude” comments about inmates attending church are insufficient to state a claim under § 1983. See Perales v. Bowlin, 644 F.Supp.2d 1090, 1099 (N.D. Ind. 2009) (citing Ivey v. Wilson, 832 F.2d 950, 955 (6th Cir. 1987) and Oltarzewski v. Ruggiero, 830 F.2d 136, 139 (9th Cir. 1987)). Likewise, VanGenderen's allegations that Podoski “attempted to supercede the orders of the family court” and “attempted to make [VanGenderen] cause an impass [sic] at the court-ordered mediation” appear to allege a denial of access to courts, but they are ...

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