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Owens v. Kernan

United States District Court, E.D. California

June 16, 2016

SCOTT KERNAN, Defendant.



         Plaintiff, a state prisoner proceeding without counsel in an action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, seeks leave to proceed in forma pauperis.[1]

         I. Request to Proceed In Forma Pauperis

         Plaintiff's application makes the showing required by 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(1) and (2). Accordingly, by separate order, the court directs the agency having custody of plaintiff to collect and forward the appropriate monthly payments for the filing fee as set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b)(1) and (2).

         II. Screening Requirement and Standards

         Federal courts must engage in a preliminary screening of cases in which prisoners seek redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The court must identify cognizable claims or dismiss the complaint, or any portion of the complaint, if the complaint "is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, " or "seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief." Id. § 1915A(b).

         A pro se plaintiff, like other litigants, must satisfy the pleading requirements of Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 8(a)(2) "requires a complaint to include a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, in order to give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 554, 562-563 (2007) (citing Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41 (1957)). While the complaint must comply with the "short and plaint statement" requirements of Rule 8, its allegations must also include the specificity required by Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009).

         To avoid dismissal for failure to state a claim a complaint must contain more than "naked assertions, " "labels and conclusions" or "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-557. In other words, "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements do not suffice." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         Furthermore, a claim upon which the court can grant relief must have facial plausibility. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. "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. When considering whether a complaint states a claim upon which relief can be granted, the court must accept the allegations as true, Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89 (2007), and construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, see Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974).

         III. Screening Order

         Review plaintiff's complaint (ECF No. 1) pursuant to § 1915A reveals that it must be dismissed for failure to state a claim. Plaintiff alleges that Title 15 of the California Code of Regulations, section 3177(b)(2), which prohibits conjugal visits for inmates serving a life sentence, violates his rights under the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act because he is serving a life sentence and his religion requires that his marriage be consummated.

         The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment provides, "Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise" of religion. U.S. CONST., amend. I. An inmate's right to exercise religious practices, however, "may be curtailed in order to achieve legitimate correctional goals or to maintain prison security." McElyea v. Babbitt, 833 F.2d 196, 197 (9th Cir. 1987) (per curiam). Generally applicable laws that incidentally burden a religious practice do not violate the Free Exercise Clause. Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 878 (1990); Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709, 714 (2005). "Because section 3177 does not prohibit conjugal visitation solely [on the basis of religion], but [applies to] all life inmates regardless of religion, it does not violate the Free Exercise Clause." Washington v. Cate, No. 1:11-cv-00264 GSA PC, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12402, at *4-5 (E.D. Cal. Jan. 31, 2014). Plaintiff's First Amendment claim therefore fails.

         The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 ("RLUIPA") provides that "no [state or local] government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution, " unless the government shows that the burden furthers "a compelling government interest" by "the least restrictive means." 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a)(1)-(2). "Religious exercise" includes "any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief." Id. § 2000cc-5(7)(A). A "substantial burden" is one that imposes a significantly great restriction or onus on religious exercise. San Jose Christian College v. City of Morgan Hill, 360 F.3d 1024, 1034-35 (9th Cir. 2004).

         This court previously considered and rejected an inmate's claim that the denial of conjugal visits violates RLUIPA, finding that the right to marry, like many other rights, is subject to substantial restrictions as a result of incarceration and that although the right to marriage is constitutionally protected for inmates, the right to marital privacy and conjugal visits while incarcerated is not. Shields v. Foston, No. 2:11-cv-0015 JAM ...

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