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Ezqueda v. Hatch

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 22, 2017

TIMOTHY HATCH, Warden, NNMDF MATHEW MONTOYA, Chief of Security, NNMDF CHARELS STEPHENS, Security Warden, NNMDF MICHAEL TRUJILLO, Correctional Officer, NNMDF, and CHYANNE GARZA, Correctional Officer NNMDF. Defendants.


         THIS MATTER is before the Court, sua sponte under 28 U.S.C. § 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">191');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">15(e)(2) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">12(b)(6), on Plaintiff Rogelio Ezqueda's civil rights complaint [Doc. 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1]. He also filed motions seeking injunctive relief and the appointment of counsel in connection with the complaint. [Docs. 6, 8]. Plaintiff is incarcerated, appears pro se, and is proceeding in forma pauperis. For the reasons set out below, the Court will dismiss the complaint without prejudice, grant Plaintiff leave to amend, and deny any additional relief.

         Standards Governing Sua Sponte Review

         The Court has discretion to dismiss an in forma pauperis complaint sua sponte under § 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">191');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">15(e)(2) “at any time if … the action … is frivolous or malicious; [or] fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted.” The Court may also dismiss a complaint sua sponte under Rule 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">12(b)(6) if “it is patently obvious that the plaintiff could not prevail on the facts alleged, and allowing [plaintiff] an opportunity to amend [the] complaint would be futile.” Hall v. Bellmon, 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">11');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">106');">935 F.2d 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">11');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">106, 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">11');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">11');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">10 (1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">10th Cir. 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1991');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1) (quotations omitted). The plaintiff must frame a complaint that contains “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 6 U.S. 662');">556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “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.” Id. “Threadbare recitals” of a cause of action and conclusory allegations, without more, do not suffice. Id.

         Because Plaintiff is pro se, his “pleadings are to be construed liberally and held to a less stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Hall, 935 F.2d at 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">11');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">11');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">10. If the court can “reasonably read the pleadings to state a valid claim on which the plaintiff could prevail, it should do so despite the plaintiff's failure to cite proper legal authority, … confusion of various legal theories, … poor syntax and sentence construction, or … unfamiliarity with pleading requirements.” Id. At the same time, however, it is not “the proper function of the district court to assume the role of advocate for the pro se litigant.” Id.


         Plaintiff asserts various claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1983 and the First, Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments for torture; sexual harassment; deliberate indifference to medical needs; the denial of due process; and the denial of religious freedom. The Court assumes the following facts taken from the complaint and the motion for injunctive relief are true.

         Plaintiff is an inmate at the Northeast New Mexico Detention Facility (“NNMDF”). On August 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">14, 201');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">16, Major Montoya and Officer Trujillo escorted him to a restroom outside of his cell. [Doc. 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1, p. 3, 5]. They forced Plaintiff to make himself vomit into a pink tote bag until he was blue in the face. [Doc. 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1, p. 5]. Plaintiff was then forced to defecate into the same bag. Id. He sustained injuries to his throat, hand, and anal cavity. [Doc. 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1, p. 3]. Three days later, Officer Garza confiscated the prayer rug Plaintiff used to practice his Muslim faith. [Doc. 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1, p. 5].

         Plaintiff called the Prison Rape Elimination Act (“PREA”) hotline to report the incidents. Id. During a follow-up interview, Security Warden Stephens laughed at Plaintiff and told him “that there was [sic] things [Plaintiff] couldn't say.” Id. Plaintiff has been assaulted by other inmates “because of what prison staff is saying about [him].” [Doc. 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1, p. 5]. NNMDF staff members “ask other inmates about what or how [Plaintiff is] doing in hopes [he] get[s] assaulted again.” [Doc. 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1, 6');">p. 6]. He also fears NNMDF staff members will try to hurt him. [Doc. 6, p. 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1]. Plaintiff has filed various informal complaints and at least three requests for mental health care, but NNMDF either does not respond or responds in an untimely fashion. [Doc. 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1, p. 7; Doc. 6, p. 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1].

         Based on these occurrences, Plaintiff sued all aforementioned actors and Timothy Hatch, NNMDF's Warden, seeking: (1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1) unspecified money damages; (2) a new prayer rug; (3) the return of any other property or privileges revoked in retaliation for his report to the PREA hotline; and (4) the termination of all Defendants from their employment at NNMDF. [Doc. 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1, p. 7]. Plaintiff also seeks the appointment of counsel and an injunction ordering his transfer to another prison. [Doc. 6, p. 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1; Doc. 8, p. 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1].


         A. Screening the Complaint

         The primary focus of the complaint is the restroom incident, where Plaintiff was forced to vomit and defecate into a bag. He argues the incident amounts to torture, sexual harassment, and cruel and usual punishment. “[S]exual harassment or abuse of an inmate by a corrections officer … can, in certain circumstances, constitute the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain that is forbidden by the Eighth Amendment.” Joseph v. U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">232 F.3d 901');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1, *1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1 (1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">10th Cir. Oct. 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">16, 2000) (unpublished) (quotations omitted). “[A]n inmate must … prove, as an objective matter, that the alleged abuse or harassment caused ‘pain' and, as a subjective matter, that the officer in question acted with a sufficiently culpable state of mind.” Id. Visual body cavity searches can also be actionable under the Fourth Amendment if they are “conducted in an abusive fashion or with unnecessary force.” Levoy v. Mills, 88 F.2d 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1437');">788 F.2d 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1437, 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1439 (1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">10th Cir. 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1986). Courts must “balance the need for the particular search against the invasion of personal rights….” Id. (quoting Bell v. Wolfish, 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1 U.S. 520');">441');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1 U.S. 520, 559 (1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1979)). Factors to consider include the “scope of the particular intrusion, the manner in which it is conducted, the justification for initiating it, and the place in which it is conducted.” Id.

         The Court cannot determine whether the restroom incident is actionable under the Fourth or Eighth Amendment because the prison officials' motivation is unclear. There are no allegations about the officials' state of mind, the circumstances surrounding the incident, whether it involved a search for contraband, or what explanation, if any, Major Montoya and Officer Trujillo provided. The complaint therefore does not state a constitutional claim for torture, sexual harassment, or an unreasonable search.

         Plaintiff's claim that Officer Garza confiscated his prayer rug, which may or may not relate to the restroom incident, is similarly deficient. Without knowing how and why the prayer rug was confiscated, it is not possible to determine whether Plaintiff's due process rights were violated. Further, with respect to the First Amendment claim, Plaintiff gives no indication whether his religious beliefs were “substantially burdened” by the confiscation or whether Officer Garza lacked “legitimate penological interests that justified the impinging conduct.” Kay v. Bemis, 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">121');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">14');">500 F.3d 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">121');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">14, 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">121');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">18 (1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">10th Cir. 2007) (describing the “two-step inquiry” required “to allege a constitutional violation based on a free exercise claim”). See also Mabon v. Campbell,1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1340');">205 F.3d 1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1');">1340 (6th Cir. 2000) (unpublished) (Affirming dismissal of generalized claim that inmate's prayer rug was “defiled”); Flynn v. ...

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