Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

NY Prisoner's Right to Practice Religion was Violated

In an unpublished opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
held that pro se prisoners proceeding in forma pauperis were "entitled to
rely on service by the U.S. Marshals." A New York prisoner filed a suit
against the New York Department of Corrections for violating his right to
practice religion freely. The guards at the prison used excessive force
during a cell search. The plaintiff was a Rastafarian, and during the cell
search, while he was handcuffed, the guards attempted to remove his
bandana. The prisoner offered to take it off himself as it was against his
religious beliefs for anyone to touch his dreadlocks. Instead the guards
grabbed his head and pulled it up and down violently until the bandana came
off along with one of his dreadlocks. Rastafarians can not cut their hair,
a religious prohibition that is protected under the First Amendment. The
prisoner filed a lawsuit against the guards and the district court
dismissed his suit under Fed.R.Civ.P. 4(m) for failure to effect timely

The Marshals Service had failed to serve the defendants because multiple
guards at the prison had the same last name. The appeals court held that a
single effort to serve, abandoned after discovering that multiple guards
had the same last name, did not satisfy the Marshals Service's
responsibility. The appellate court reviewed the dismissal under
Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) de novo. Also, circuit precedent held that a policy
requiring haircuts of all male prisoners upon incarceration violated the
free exercise rights of Rastafarians. Because of these reasons, guards
pulling out dreadlocks was a straightforward violation of the prisoner's
rights, and dismissal for failure to state a cause of action was
inappropriate. The district court's judgment was vacated in part and
remanded in part. See: Shepherd v. Sanchez, 27 Fed.Appx. 31 (2nd Cir. 2001).

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Shepherd v. Sanchez

EON SHEPHERD, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. CAPTAIN SANCHEZ, CAPTAIN GRANT, WARDEN ORTIZ, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 00-0246


27 Fed. Appx. 31; 2001 U.S. App.

November 1, 2001, Decided


PRIOR HISTORY: Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Loretta A. Preska, D.J.).

Shepherd v. Sanchez, 2000 U.S. Dist. (S.D.N.Y. July 20, 2000)

DISPOSITION: Affirmed in part, vacated in part and remanded.


For APPELLEES: SUSAN CHOI-HAUSMAN, Assistant Corporation Counsel, New York, NY.

JUDGES: PRESENT: Hon. John M. Walker, Jr., Chief Judge, Hon. Jon O. Newman, Hon. Amalya L. Kearse, Circuit Judges.

OPINION: [*32]
Plaintiff-appellant Eon Shepherd filed a pro se complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that Captain Sanchez, Captain Grant, and Warden Ortiz, officials at the Otis Bantum Correctional Facility where Shepherd was incarcerated, violated his First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. The district court dismissed the complaint against Sanchez under Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(m) for failure to effect timely service. Shepherd submitted a timely process service request to the U.S. Marshals Service, but the Service failed to serve Sanchez because multiple officers at the jail had the name "Sanchez." The [**2] district court also granted the defendants' Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action.
Shepherd adheres to the Rastafarian faith. His religious beliefs require that no one else touch his hair. In early April 1996, Shepherd was handcuffed during a [*33] search of his cell. According to Shepherd's complaint, Captain Sanchez ordered an officer to remove the bandana from Shepherd's hair. Although Shepherd protested that he could not permit anyone else to touch his hair but would remove the bandana himself, the officer "grabbed [his] dread locks and removed the bandanna, lifting up and pulling at [his] dread locks. In the process of the officer pulling at [his] dread locks, one of [his] dread locks [was] snatched out of [his] head." Several days later, while Shepherd was being escorted to the jail's main clinic, he was stopped by a group of corrections officers who stated that he could not have a bandana around his dreadlocks. Shepherd alleges that he again offered to remove the bandana himself and said that no one else could touch his hair, but that "Captain Grant snatched my dread locks pulling off my bandana stating, 'Fuck you Shepherd, I run this [**3] jail, get the fuck out of my face with that religious bull shit.'" Shepherd's complaint implicates Warden Ortiz in the incidents solely by alleging his "controlling interest" in the prison officials' actions.
The district court's decision to dismiss the claim against Sanchez for Shepherd's failure to effect timely service was error. Pro se, incarcerated litigants proceeding in forma pauperis are "entitled to rely on service by the U.S. Marshals." Romandette v. Weetabix Co., 807 F.2d 309, 311 (2d Cir. 1986) (citation omitted). A single effort to serve, abandoned after discovering that multiple officers have the same last name, did not satisfy the Marshals Service's responsibility. On remand, the district court should permit service out of time and make such orders as it deems appropriate to facilitate proper service of defendant Sanchez. See Valentin v. Dinkins, 121 F.3d 72, 76 (2d Cir. 1997) (per curiam).
We review dismissals under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) de novo. Cooper v. Parsky, 140 F.3d 433, 440 (2d Cir. 1998). All facts alleged in the complaint are taken as true. Id. Furthermore, pro se pleadings are construed [**4] liberally and as raising "the strongest arguments that they suggest." Graham v. Henderson, 89 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1996) (internal quotation marks omitted). Although the complaint on its face focuses on the touching of Shepherd's hair, it can be read to allege that the corrections officers pulled out portions of Shepherd's dreadlocks. Circuit precedent holds that a policy requiring haircuts of all male inmates upon incarceration violates the free exercise rights of Rastafarians. Benjamin v. Coughlin, 905 F.2d 571, 576-77 (2d Cir. 1990). Because the extension of Benjamin to corrections officers pulling out dreadlocks is straight-forward, dismissal for failure to state a cause of action was inappropriate.
The district court correctly dismissed the claim against Ortiz. Shepherd failed to allege adequate personal involvement by Ortiz to justify holding him liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See Colon v. Coughlin, 58 F.3d 865, 873-74 (2d Cir. 1995).
For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the district court is VACATED in part and AFFIRMED in part.