357 F.3d 197 (2nd Cir. 2004), 02-0117, McEachin v. McGuinnis

Docket Nº:02-0117.
Citation:357 F.3d 197
Party Name:Guy McEACHIN, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Michael MCGUINNIS, Superintendent, W.E. Wilcox, Acting Dep. Supt. of Security, Southport, J. Irizarry, Food Service Administrator, Defendants-Appellees.
Case Date:February 05, 2004
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
 
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Page 197

357 F.3d 197 (2nd Cir. 2004)

Guy McEACHIN, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

Michael MCGUINNIS, Superintendent, W.E. Wilcox, Acting Dep. Supt. of Security, Southport, J. Irizarry, Food Service Administrator, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 02-0117.

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

February 5, 2004

Submitted: Nov. 24, 2003.

Page 198

Guy McEachin, pro se plaintiff-appellant, Upstate Correctional Facility, Malone, NY.

Before: CALABRESI, B.D. PARKER, and RAGGI, Circuit Judges.

CALABRESI, Circuit Judge.

In January 2002, pro se plaintiff-appellant Guy McEachin ("McEachin" or "plaintiff"), then an inmate at the Southport Correctional Facility in Pine City, New York ("Southport"), filed suit against various Southport officials in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York. In his complaint, which was accompanied by a motion to proceed in forma pauperis ("IFP"), McEachin claimed that the defendants, Superintendent Michael McGuinnis ("McGuinnis"), Deputy Superintendent of Security W.E. Wilcox ("Wilcox"), and Food Service Administrator J. Irizarry ("Irizarry") (collectively, "defendants"), infringed plaintiff's rights under the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The district court (Larimer, C.J.) dismissed McEachin's complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915A and 1915(e)(2)(B), which provide for the judicial screening of civil actions filed by prisoners against governmental entities or their officers, and for the dismissal of claims that are "frivolous, malicious, or fail[] to state a claim upon which relief may be granted." See id. § 1915 A(b)(1). We affirm the dismissal of McEachin's Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment claims, but reverse the lower court's ruling with respect to the plaintiff's claim that defendants violated his First Amendment right to religious free exercise, and remand for further proceedings.

I. Background

McEachin's complaint and accompanying documents can be read to allege the following facts. After sunset on December 4, 2001, in the Southport dining facility, McEachin, who is Muslim, was engaged in prayer (salat) upon breaking his daily Ramadan fast. A Correctional Officer named Sheremeta ordered him to return his food

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tray and cup. When McEachin did not respond, Sheremeta issued a Tier II1 misbehavior report based on McEachin's failure to obey his order. McEachin contends that the instruction was deliberately issued while he was engaged in prayer and that Sheremeta knew McEachin's religious beliefs prohibited his responding to the instruction while praying.

As a result, pending a disciplinary hearing, the plaintiff was subjected to a week-long restricted diet of "loaf." McEachin complained to each of the defendants that this diet violated his religious beliefs, which required him to break his Ramadan fast each day with properly blessed (Halal) food. He claims that the defendants' failure to suspend the punitive diet (1) was a denial of his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, because applicable regulations permit the imposition of the "loaf" diet only when a Tier III report is filed; (2) constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment because it caused plaintiff severe stomach pain and a three-pound weight loss; and (3) infringed his First Amendment right to the free exercise of his religion by depriving him, for one week, of Halal meals with which to break his fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.2

The district court granted the plaintiff permission to proceed IFP, but dismissed his complaint on the grounds that McEachin failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. See McEachin v. McGinnis, No. 02-CV-6005CJS(Fe) (W.D.N.Y. Feb. 12, 2002) (" McEachin "). In disposing of his Eighth Amendment claim of cruel and unusual punishment, the court concluded that McEachin had established neither that the deprivation imposed by the restrictive diet was of constitutional magnitude, nor that the defendants acted "maliciously and sadistically to cause harm." McEachin, at 4 (quoting, inter alia, Romano v. Howarth, 998 F.2d 101, 105 (2d Cir. 1993)). Finding no allegation that the "loaf" diet was nutritionally inadequate, posed an imminent health risk, or physically injured McEachin,

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the court held that the circumstances warranted the deference usually accorded to prison officials who are charged with preserving "internal order and discipline" and "maintain[ing] institutional security." See McEachin, at 4-5 (quoting Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 524, 99 S.Ct. 1861, 60 L.Ed.2d 447 (1979)).

With respect to McEachin's due process claim, the court noted that under Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 115 S.Ct. 2293, 132 L.Ed.2d 418 (1995) and Frazier v. Coughlin, 81 F.3d 313 (2d Cir. 1996) (per curiam), a plaintiff, to demonstrate entitlement to relief, must allege "that the restricted diet was 'an atypical and significant hardship' and that the state, by regulation or statute, granted him a 'protected liberty interest in remaining free from' being placed on the restricted diet." McEachin, at 6 (quoting, inter alia, Frazier, 81 F.3d at 317). Regardless of whether state law created such a liberty interest, the district court found no "atypical and significant" hardship sufficient to implicate McEachin's due process rights. Id.

The district court also dismissed McEachin's First Amendment claim. Emphasizing the " 'great deference' ... afforded to prison officials who are charged with the 'difficult responsibility' of maintaining order in prisons," id. at 6-7 (quoting Young v. Coughlin, 866 F.2d 567, 570 (2d Cir. 1989)), the court characterized McEachin's complaint as alleging a de minimis burden on his religion, rather than a burden of constitutional magnitude, see id. at 7. "Plaintiff does not allege a routine or blanket practice of interfering with his religious practices and thus the imposition of seven days restricted diet on this one occasion does not implicate constitutional concerns," the district court concluded. Id.

On April 12, 2002, the district court (Siragusa, J.) granted McEachin permission to file a late Notice of Appeal, which he did. Subsequently, McEachin requested appointment of counsel and permission to proceed IFP. On October 2, 2002, this Court granted his motion for IFP status, but declined to appoint counsel. The defendants, who were not served with and did not file an answer to plaintiff's complaint, informed the court that they would neither submit a brief nor participate in the oral argument of this appeal.

II. Discussion

We review de novo a district court's dismissal of complaints under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915A and 1915(e)(2)(B). See Larkin v. Savage, 318 F.3d 138, 139 (2d. Cir. 2003) (per curiam). The settled rule is that "a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Flores v. S. Peru Copper Corp., 343 F.3d 140, 148 (2d Cir. 2003) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957)). Further, when the plaintiff proceeds pro se, as in this case, a court is obliged to construe his pleadings liberally, particularly when they allege civil rights violations. See Weinstein v. Albright, 261 F.3d 127, 132 (2d Cir. 2001). We have frequently reiterated that " [s]ua sponte dismissal of pro se prisoner petitions which contain non-frivolous claims without requiring service upon respondents or granting leave to amend is...

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