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Alfredo Mestre, Jr. v. Warden Wagner

January 31, 2012

ALFREDO MESTRE, JR.
v.
WARDEN WAGNER, ET AL



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Savage, J.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff, Alfredo Mestre, Jr. ("Mestre"), a state prisoner, filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming his rights under the Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq. ("RLUIPA") were violated when he was not provided a diet conforming to his religious beliefs while being housed in the Berks County Jail System.*fn1 He contends that despite his request for a vegan diet consistent with his religion, he was given meals that contained meat or animal by-products three to four times a week. He seeks injunctive*fn2 and monetary relief.

Mestre has named as defendants three prison officials and a chaplain. The prison officials are: Warden Wagner, who granted Mestre relief in the grievance process; Lieutenant Castro, the prison's grievance coordinator; and Sergeant Svenson, the kitchen supervisor. The chaplain, Eileen McKeown, ministers the prison population.

According to his complaint, Mestre, a Buddhist, entered the Berks County Jail System on September 16, 2010.*fn3 He requested a religious, non-meat diet from a prison officer who is not named as a defendant. Two days later, he started his religious diet, but continued to receive meat or animal by-products with lunch and dinner.

After he complained, he was referred to McKeown, the prison chaplain, who is not a prison employee. On September 21, 2010, she provided him a form to document his request for a diet consistent with his religious beliefs. On the form, Mestre wrote that he does not eat meat or "any product[s] that come from meat" and requested a "vegaintarian [sic] meal." McKeown approved the request.

The following day after dinner, Mestre sent Svenson a "request slip" complaining that he was still receiving food containing animal by-products in his meals. Six days later, Svenson replied that he had not been notified by McKeown that Mestre was vegan, and that Mestre would continue to receive vegetarian meals until he received confirmation that Mestre qualified for a vegan diet. The initial form submitted by McKeown, which was in Mestre's handwriting and signed by him, requested vegetarian, not vegan, meals.

On the same day he received Svenson's reply, Mestre made a second request to McKeown. In that request, he stated that he is a "vegetarian" and clarified that he does not eat meat or "any products that come from an animal." Perceiving that Mestre was asking to be placed on a vegan -- as opposed to vegetarian -- diet, McKeown approved Mestre's "religious diet: vegan" on September 30, 2010. Mestre continued to receive meat or animal by-products occasionally.*fn4

Three weeks later, Mestre filed an emergency grievance, which was denied by Castro because it did not constitute an emergency. Castro directed Mestre to file a standard grievance. Mestre did so the following day. Although the copy of the grievance is difficult to read, it is clear that Castro denied the grievance on October 26, 2010. Mestre's appeal to the Warden, defendant Wagner, was resolved in his favor. On November 8, 2010, he began receiving vegan meals. Thus, his request for a vegan religious diet was ultimately approved.

Mestre alleges that Svenson told him he would continue to receive meat three to four times a week despite his request for a vegan meal. Mestre adds in his response to the prison officials' motion to dismiss that Svenson, as the kitchen supervisor, responded to his September 22, 2010 request by insulting his intelligence and continuing to send him meals containing meat or animal by-products. Thus, according to Mestre, although Svenson "had the opportunity to step in and correct the violation," he failed to do so.

There are no allegations in the complaint that Castro did anything other than deny Mestre's two grievances. In his response to the prison officials' motion to dismiss, Mestre adds that Castro "had the opportunity to stop the violation" but made excuses instead.

The only allegation against Wagner, the warden, is that he played a role in ruling on the appeal. However, Wagner's action resulted in Mestre's getting the diet he requested. In other words, Wagner actually assisted Mestre. Nonetheless, Mestre appears to argue that Wagner, as a supervisor, is liable for the constitutional violations of his subordinates.

Mestre alleges that McKeown had him complete the same form verifying his request for a religious diet. In his response to McKeown's motion to dismiss, Mestre claims that she "had the opportunity to step in and make sure that Sgt. Svenson got [Mestre's] religious diet correct." According to Mestre, her failure to do so, and her "excuses for the delay of [his] religious diet" placed a substantial burden on his religious exercise.

Mestre claims that during the seven weeks before he was regularly provided a religious diet, the defendants violated the RLUIPA, his right to free exercise of religion, and denied him equal protection under the law. He also appears to challenge the manner in which the defendants processed and evaluated his request for a religious diet.

The prison officials challenge the sufficiency of Mestre's complaint under Rule 12(b)(6). In her motion to dismiss, McKeown also raises a failure to state a claim and adds that Mestre cannot maintain a ยง 1983 claim against ...


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