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Muhammad v. Ponce

United States District Court, C.D. California

July 26, 2017

LEO MUHAMMAD, Plaintiff,
v.
FELICIA PONCE, Defendant.

          ORDER DISMISSING COMPLAINT WITH LEAVE TO AMEND

          HONORABLE DAVID O. CARTER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. BACKGROUND AND SUMMARY

         On April 21, 2017, Leo Muhammad (“plaintiff”) - who is an inmate at the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) Federal Correctional Institution, Terminal Island, is proceeding without a lawyer (i.e., “pro se”), and has been granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis - formally filed what has been liberally construed to be a Complaint (“Complaint” or “Comp.”) with attached exhibits (“Comp. Ex.”) against a single defendant - Felicia Ponce (“Ponce” or “defendant”).[1] The Complaint appears to be predicated on the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc et seq. (“RLUIPA”), and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb et seq. (“RFRA”). (Comp. at 1). Plaintiff seeks only injunctive relief. (Comp. at 6).

         As the Complaint is deficient in multiple respects, including those detailed below, it is dismissed with leave to amend.

         II. THE SCREENING REQUIREMENT

         As plaintiff is a prisoner proceeding in forma pauperis on a complaint against a governmental defendant, the Court must screen the Complaint, and is required to dismiss the case at any time it concludes the action is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B), 1915A; 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c).

         When screening a complaint to determine whether it states any claim that is viable (i.e., capable of succeeding), the Court applies the same standard as it would when evaluating a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). See Rosati v. Igbinoso, 791 F.3d 1037, 1039 (9th Cir. 2015) (citation omitted). Rule 12(b)(6), in turn, is read in conjunction with Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (“Rule 8”). Zixiang Li v. Kerry, 710 F.3d 995, 998-99 (9th Cir. 2013). Under Rule 8, a complaint must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). While Rule 8 does not require detailed factual allegations, at a minimum a complaint must allege enough specific facts to provide both “fair notice” of the particular claim being asserted and “the grounds upon which [that claim] rests.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 & n.3 (2007) (citation and quotation marks omitted); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (Rule 8 pleading standard “demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation”) (citing id. at 555).

         In addition, under Rule 10 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (“Rule 10”), a complaint, among other things, must state a party's claims in sequentially “numbered paragraphs, each limited as far as practicable to a single set of circumstances.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(b).

         Thus, to avoid dismissal, a complaint must “contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Nordstrom v. Ryan, 762 F.3d 903, 908 (9th Cir. 2014) (citations and quotation marks omitted). A claim is “plausible” when the facts alleged in the complaint would support a reasonable inference that the plaintiff is entitled to relief from a specific defendant for specific misconduct. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citation omitted). Allegations that are “merely consistent with” a defendant's liability, or reflect only “the mere possibility of misconduct” do not “show[] that the pleader is entitled to relief” (as required by Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)), and thus are insufficient to state a claim that is “plausible on its face.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79 (citations and quotation marks omitted). At this preliminary stage, “well-pleaded factual allegations” in a complaint are assumed true, while “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action” and “legal conclusion[s] couched as a factual allegation” are not. Id. (citation and quotation marks omitted); Jackson v. Barnes, 749 F.3d 755, 763 (9th Cir. 2014) (“mere legal conclusions ‘are not entitled to the assumption of truth'”) (quoting id.), cert. denied, 135 S.Ct. 980 (2015). In addition, the Court is “not required to accept as true conclusory allegations which are contradicted by documents referred to in the complaint, ” Steckman v. Hart Brewing, Inc., 143 F.3d 1293, 1295-96 (9th Cir. 1998) (citation omitted), and “need not [] accept as true allegations that contradict matters properly subject to judicial notice or by exhibit, ” Sprewell v. Golden State Warriors, 266 F.3d 979, 988 (9th Cir.), amended on denial of reh'g, 275 F.3d 1187 (9th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted).

         Pro se complaints are interpreted liberally to give plaintiffs “the benefit of any doubt.” Akhtar v. Mesa, 698 F.3d 1202, 1212 (9th Cir. 2012) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). If a pro se complaint is dismissed because it does not state a claim, the court must freely grant “leave to amend” (that is, give the plaintiff a chance to file a new, corrected complaint) if it is “at all possible” that the plaintiff could fix the identified pleading errors by alleging different or new facts. Cafasso v. General Dynamics C4 Systems, Inc., 637 F.3d 1047, 1058 (9th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted); Lopez v. Smith, 203 F.3d 1122, 1126-30 (9th Cir. 2000) (en banc) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         III. THE COMPLAINT

         Very liberally construed, the salient, non-conclusory allegations in the Complaint appear to reflect the following material facts:

         Plaintiff is a follower of the “Nation of Islam” (“NOI”) religion. (Comp. at 1). On February 3, 2016, plaintiff submitted an inmate request to Associate Warden Flint which asked for a “Public Commemorative Fast” to celebrate “Saviours' Day” (i.e., “the Birth of The Mahdi, Master Fard Muhammad” which occurs each year on February 26th). (Comp. at 1-2). “[P]rior practice of the Chaplaincy has allowed observation of Saviours' Day with the Commemorative Fast an[d] a Ceremonial meal thereafter.” (Comp. at 2).

         On February 7, 2016, Chaplain W. Son denied plaintiff's request “claiming the (NOI) ‘Public Fast' day was on 16th October, each year.” (Comp. at 2). In addition, Chaplain Son “scheduled the Ceremonial meal for [February 25, 2016], without consulting [plaintiff] or any (NOI) Adherent.” (Comp. at 2). “[T]he Thursday scheduling for the 25th day of February 2016 ha[s] no religious/ ecclesiastical significance to [plaintiff] or any (NOI) Adherent.” (Comp. at 2).

         Plaintiff seeks only injunctive relief, requesting that defendant be ordered “to observe Saviours' Day, each year according to [plaintiff's] spiritual precepts[, ] [t]hereby observing the day” on February 26th of each ...


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