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Decker v. Frakes

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

August 2, 2016

CHRISTOPHER DECKER, Plaintiff,
v.
SCOTT FRAKES, MARIO PEART, RELIGIOUS STUDIES COMMITTEE MEMBERS, and JEFF MILLER, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Richard G. Kopf Senior United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the court on Plaintiff’s Motion for Leave to File an Amended Complaint. (Filing No. 31.) The motion will be granted.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff, who is currently incarcerated at the Lincoln Correctional Center (“LCC”), initiated this action on September 25, 2015. Plaintiff’s Complaint named Scott Frakes, Mario Peart, “Religious Studies Committee Members, ” and Jeff Miller as defendants. Defendants were sued in their official and individual capacities. (Filing No. 1.) Plaintiff sought injunctive relie f and monetary damages. (Filing No. 1 at CM/ECF pp. 4-5.)

         The claims set forth in the Complaint were based on incidents that occurred in Lincoln, Nebraska, at the LCC. (Filing No. 1 at CM/ECF p. 1.) Plaintiff generally alleged that the defendants violated his religious rights in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. (Id.) He also alleged retaliation and equal protection violations, as well as violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”).

         The Complaint alleged that Plaintiff is a member of the Asatru religion and has been practicing this religion since the year 2000. (Filing No. 1 at CM/ECF p. 2.) On November 11, 2014, LCC’s religious coordinator, Defendant Jeff Miller, sent Plaintiff a memorandum stating that the Asatru worship time was going to be reduced from 120 minutes to 60 minutes beginning December 1, 2014. As a result, Plaintiff had to “modif[y]” his worship practices “to omit essential worship elements.” These omissions “cause[d] the Asatru worship service to be incomplete.” (Filing No. 1 at CM/ECF p. 2.)

         Plaintiff alleged that on January 5, 2015, Miller informed Plaintiff that the Asatru members would also be limited to 3 pieces of wood for their weekly sacred fire. (Id.) Miller stated the limitation “was in response to grievances filed by [Plaintiff] about staff requiring the extinguishment of the Asatru sacred fire.” (Filing No. 1 at CM/ECF p. 2.) Plaintiff alleged a religious group with similar needs, the Native American faith group, did not face the same restrictions and limitations as the Asatru faith group. (Filing No. 1 at CM/ECF p. 3.)

         The court conducted an initial review of Plaintiff’s Complaint on February 3, 2016. (Filing No. 17.) The court found that Plaintiff failed to state RLUIPA and First Amendment claims upon which relief could be granted. In so finding, the court reasoned that Plaintiff’s allegations were conclusory and “did not explain what worship elements were omitted from the service and how the omission of these worship elements substantially burdened his exercise of religion.” (Filing No. 17 at CM/ECF p. 4.) Similarly, the court found that Plaintiff’s First Amendment claim failed because Plaintiff did not allege a substantial burden on his religious exercise. (Id.)

         The court also concluded that Plaintiff’s Complaint failed to state cognizable equal-protection and retaliation claims against Frakes, Peart, and Religious Studies Committee Members. The court found that Plaintiff had not alleged that any of these defendants were personally involved in the incidents underlying his claims. Further, the court found that to the extent Plaintiff alleged that Frakes and Peart were liable as prison supervisors, his claims failed because respondeat superior is not a basis for liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The court dismissed the claims against these defendants without prejudice to reassertion in an amended complaint.

         The court did, however, find that Plaintiff had alleged plausible equal protection and retaliation claims against Defendant Miller. Accordingly, these claims were allowed to proceed to service of process against Miller in his individual and official capacities. Miller was subsequently served and filed an answer to the Complaint on April 15, 2016. (Filing No. 28.)

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff has requested leave to file an amended complaint. Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15, the Court should “freely give leave” to amend a pleading “when justice so requires.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15. Nevertheless, a party does not have an absolute right to amend and “denial of leave to amend may be justified by undue delay, bad faith on the part of the moving party, futility of the amendment or unfair prejudice to the opposing party.” Amrine v. Brooks, 522 F.3d 823, 833 (8th Cir. 2008) (quotation and citation omitted). Whether to grant a motion for leave to amend is within the sound discretion of the district court. Popoalii v. Corr. Med. Servs, 512 F.3d 488, 497 (8th Cir. 2008).

         Plaintiff’s proposed amended complaint reasserts the causes of action set forth in the original Complaint. Again, the defendants are named in their official and individual capacities. Plaintiff continues to seek monetary and injunctive relief. However, the amended complaint includes far more detailed allegations than the original Complaint. (Filing No. 31-1.)

         With respect to his RLUIPA and First Amendment claims, Plaintiff describes the parts of his worship service in detail and identifies the specific portions of the worship service that must be omitted or modified given the new time restrictions. Plaintiff also explains why each of the omitted or modified portions of the service are fundamental to his faith. He alleges that his practices “have been substantially burdened” and ...


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