THE DEFENSE ATTORNEYS -- GUSTINE J. PELAGATTI AND LARRICK B. STAPLETON
The plaintiff accuses his defense attorneys of several improper acts. They allegedly participated with the prosecution in secret, unrecorded conferences during the trial; denied plaintiff access to pertinent parts of the trial transcript; refused to support and advocate certain positions taken by plaintiff in the post-trial motions; and participated in the drugging of plaintiff.
As a matter of law, defense attorneys, even court-appointed ones, are private persons. Consequently, they do not act under color of law, so any actions which they undertake on their own are not within the scope of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. Reinke v. Richardson, 279 F. Supp. 155 (E.D.Wis.1968). If attorneys act in conspiracy with a state official to deprive a person of his constitutional rights, however, they may be deemed to be acting under color of law. Under these circumstances, they may be held liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1985 (1970). Here the alleged acts performed by the defense attorneys with the District Attorneys were the side-bar conferences and the drugging of the plaintiff. The side-bar conferences were perfectly proper conduct and are not actionable.
As for the drugging of plaintiff, Arnold Hamilton, the event may be actionable; but as discussed below the statute of limitations has run.
The complaint of Arnold Hamilton against Gustine J. Pellagatti, Esq., and Larrick B. Stapleton, Esq. will be dismissed.
STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS
The defendants argue that the applicable statute of limitations has run. The dates which are significant to this argument are May 4, 1971, when post-trial motions were disposed of; September 2, 1971, when Judge Shoyer sentenced Arnold Hamilton; and August 7, 1972, when the plaintiff filed his complaint in this action.
There are two separate issues which must be resolved in the defendants' favor before the statute of limitations defense can prevail. First, it must be determined what statute of limitations applies to the facts alleged in the complaint. Second, it must be determined which dates are the key ones for the statute of limitations; that is, when did the statute begin to run.
The Congress when it enacted the Civil Rights Act did not provide for a national statute of limitations. Consequently, it is necessary to examine the various statutes of limitations in the appropriate state, in this instance Pennsylvania, and apply the statute which limits actions most similar to the one in the instant complaint. Swan v. Board of Higher Educ., 319 F.2d 56 (2d Cir. 1963); Conard v. Stitzel, 225 F. Supp. 244, 247 (E.D.Pa.1963).
An examination of the various Pennsylvania statutes of limitations quickly narrows the possible statutes to two: the statute for false imprisonment (two years, Pa.Stat.Ann., tit. 12, § 31 (1953) and the statute for malicious prosecution (one year, Pa.Stat.Ann. tit. 12, § 51 (1953). We conclude that the one-year statute of limitations applies in this case. Admittedly, facts alleged by the plaintiff would not support a tort case for malicious prosecution. The necessary elements are not all present. For example, the criminal trial did not end in an acquittal, and plaintiff does not allege that the prosecutors lacked probable cause to believe that the plaintiff was guilty at the time of his arrest.
This tort deals with the taking of a person into custody or detaining an unreasonably long time before bail is set or a hearing is held.
It does not apply to occurrences at trial.
Thus, we reach the not very surprising conclusion that a Civil Rights complaint often would not be actionable as pleaded under state law. Because different elements must be pleaded and proved, the Civil Rights action will not fit neatly into a pigeonhole in a state's various statutes of limitations for different torts.
An examination of the elements may be helpful in some instances, but often it will be necessary to look more closely at the gravamen of the complaint and the basic nature of the torts in question.
In the instant case, Arnold Hamilton complains that the trial process was replete with legal errors and abused by persons who sought his conviction. False imprisonment basically applies to force used to confine a person illegally. Malicious prosecution, on the other hand, applies to a perversion of legal process by malicious or overzealous persons. Malicious prosecution is the tort more analogous to the acts alleged in the complaint in this case. Therefore, the one-year statute of limitations will be applied.
The second issue is whether the actionable events ceased on or before the end of the trial and post-verdict motions, May 4, 1971, or continued through the sentencing, September 2, 1971. If the latter, the complaint was filed within one year of their occurrence. Hamilton does allege that certain events which took place at or about the time of sentencing are actionable. The only alleged event, however, that gives rise to a cause of action is the drugging of Arnold Hamilton before he testified. That event occurred long before sentencing, on March 21, 1969.
There is one more possible argument that the statute of limitations has not run. If the drugging alleged in the complaint is interpreted as an overt act in furtherance of a conspiracy to deny the plaintiff a fair trial, then the conspiracy may have lasted until such time that the statute of limitations did not expire. This interpretation assumes the conspiracy lasted until sentencing September 2, 1971. We conclude, however, that this possible interpretation conflicts with plaintiff's allegations. Arnold Hamilton does not allege a general conspiracy to deny him a fair trial. In the complaint proper, the plaintiff does state that defendants acted "single and or severally." In the accompanying affidavit, however, a series of events are alleged; some involved one defendant, and others involved several defendants. The conclusion we reach is that in the complaint, plaintiff made merely general reference to the events involving one or several defendants and did not allege a general conspiracy. Even if the bald assertion that the defendants acted "single and or severally" does suggest a conspiracy, that suggestion is weakened by the accompanying affidavit. The specific allegations in the affidavit describe separate, divisible actions, not a general conspiracy. A district court to deny a motion to dismiss need not give constructional preference to sweeping generalizations rather than specific allegations which preclude relief.
In further support of the conclusion that no general conspiracy was alleged, we note that nowhere in the complaint is the word "conspiracy" used. Had a lawyer drafted the complaint, this omission would be fatal; but under Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 92 S. Ct. 594, 30 L. Ed. 2d 652 (1972), it is merely persuasive. Even inferring from the complaint that there was a conspiracy among Judge Shoyer, the District Attorneys, and the defense counsel to drug the plaintiff, it does not follow that the conspiracy continued thereafter. The defense attorneys might well have wanted desperately for Arnold Hamilton to testify about "distasteful things" to support the defense of insanity. The defense attorneys' participation in any conspiracy could well have ceased then. Thus, the plaintiff has failed to allege a conspiracy to deny Arnold Hamilton a fair trial, and it is not reasonable to infer such a conspiracy from the specific facts alleged.
We note that under Haines, district courts may not dismiss pro se complaints 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'." Id. at 520-521, 92 S. Ct. at 596. We are not required, however, to stretch our imagination to manufacture allegations to supplement the complaint or to assume facts inconsistent with it after finding that the facts alleged preclude relief. In considering pro se complaints, we will not hold them to a high standard in pleading matters of law, and will liberally infer facts which pro se plaintiffs through lack of knowledge and experience might omit. We will not, however, infer facts as important, basic, and obvious as those necessary here to avoid the defense of the statute of limitations.
The complaint of Arnold Hamilton will be dismissed.