105 S. Ct. at 1943-47. Owens clarified Wilson's reach in states that have different limitations periods for different types of personal injuries; in those states, courts that confront § 1983 claims must apply the residual statute of limitations for personal injuries. Owens, 109 S. Ct. at 581-82.
The Pennsylvania statute of limitations for personal injury is two years. 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 5524 (1981 & Supp. 1994). Our Court of Appeals has identified that "the appropriate limitations period for section 1983 claim[s]" is section 5524. Bougher v. University of Pittsburgh, 882 F.2d 74, 78 (3d Cir. 1989). A § 1983 claimant must follow section 5524's command that "actions and proceedings must be commenced within two years" of the date on which his claim accrues.
Although state law determines the duration of the limitations period, federal law determines the date of accrual. Long v. Bd. of Educ. of the City of Philadelphia, 812 F. Supp. 525, 531 (E.D. Pa.), aff'd without op., 8 F.3d 811 (3d Cir. 1993). Long informs us that "[a] civil rights cause of action accrues under federal law when the plaintiff 'knew or had reason to know of the injury that constitutes the basis of [the] action.'" Long, 812 F. Supp. at 530 (citing Sandutch v. Muroski, 684 F.2d 252, 254 (3d Cir. 1982)).
Jackson's complaint arises from injuries that he suffered on the date of his arrest. He alleges that officers Nicoletti and Remshaw illegally entered his mother's garage on June 11, 1992 and used unnecessary force in arresting him. Thus, following Long, 812 F. Supp. at 530, and Sandutch, 684 F.2d at 254, Jackson's claim accrued on June 11, 1992. Section 5524 thus requires Jackson to have commenced his action by June 11, 1994.
B. Determination of the Date of Commencement of the Action
1. The Plain Language of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure
We must next determine whether Jackson "commenced" his action within two years of June 11, 1992. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 3 is clear on this matter: "A civil action is commenced by filing a complaint with the court." Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5(e) resolves any potential ambiguity in the phrase "filing . . . with the court". Rule 5(e) teaches us that "the filing of papers with the court as required by these rules shall be made by filing them with the clerk of the court". If we apply these rules, then Jackson did not commence his suit until July 11, 1994, when his complaint was in the hands of the Clerk of this Court. More specifically, we could not find that Jackson commenced his § 1983 claim when he signed his complaint on June 1, 1994. Nor could we find that he commenced his suit by turning over his papers to prison administrators for mailing, even if that action occurred on or before June 11, 1994. Strict operation of the rules' plain language would impose a duty on Jackson to file his complaint with the clerk of the court by June 11, 1994.
2. The Extension of Houston v. Lack to the Facts of this Case
We recognize that prisoners acting pro se receive the benefit of substantive and procedural protections not available to represented plaintiffs.
First, in Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 92 S. Ct. 594, 30 L. Ed. 2d 652 (1972), the Supreme Court held that courts must liberally construe the factual allegations of a pro se complaint. Id. at 596; see also Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 112 S. Ct. 1728, 1733-34, 118 L. Ed. 2d 340 (1992); Brow v. Farrelly, 994 F.2d 1027, 1036-37 (3d Cir. 1993).
Second, in 1989, the Supreme Court extended procedural protections to pro se prisoners. In Houston v. Lack, 487 U.S. 266, 108 S. Ct. 2379, 101 L. Ed. 2d 245 (1988), the Court held that a prisoner's notice of appeal of a habeas corpus petition is "filed" for the purposes of Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(1) when the prisoner delivers it to "prison authorities". Id. at 2385. The case effectually modified Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a), which establishes the general rule that notices of appeal are effective if received by the clerk of the district court within thirty days of the order appealed from. Houston in effect created a "mailbox" rule, see id. at 2384, insofar as notices of appeals by pro se prisoners are effective when the notices leave the prisoners' hands.
The Supreme Court in Houston rested the formation of this mailbox rule on three related rationales, all of which depend upon a pro se prisoner's unique status as a litigant. First, a prisoner is unable to control the filing of a notice of appeal. "Unlike other litigants", the Court noted, "pro se prisoners cannot personally travel to the courthouse to see that the notice is stamped 'filed' or to establish the date on which the court received the notice." Id. at 2382. Although other litigants may "choose" to use the "vagaries of the mail", only the pro se prisoner "is forced to do so" because of his incarceration. Id. Second, the Court exhibited a palpable distrust of prison officials. It reasoned that "the pro se prisoner has no choice but to entrust the forwarding of his notice of appeal to prison authorities whom he cannot control or supervise and who may have every incentive to delay." Id. Finally, the Court worried about the obstacles that a prisoner might face in trying to prove that prison authorities delayed sending a notice of appeal to the proper court:
If there is a delay the prisoner suspects is attributable to the prison authorities, he is unlikely to have any means of proving it, for his confinement prevents him from monitoring the process sufficiently to distinguish delay on the part of prison authorities from slow mail service or the court clerk's failure to stamp the notice on the date received.
Most important in the context of the issue before us today, the Court did not explicitly rest its holding on the relatively short, 30-day period that a prisoner has in which to file his notice of appeal. Instead, the Court's holding focused on the attributes associated with the prisoner's unique situation, not on the attributes of the particular filing.
Four Justices dissented from the Court's holding. The dissent primarily objected that the Court had created a new procedural rule directly contrary to the plain language of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure.
See id. at 2385-86 (Scalia J., dissenting, joined by Rehnquist, C.J., and O'Connor and Kennedy, JJ.). The dissent also justifiably complained that the Court's rationale had no limiting principle. Pro se prisoners occupy a position little different from, for example, United States citizens in foreign countries (for whom delivery of a notice of appeal to a consul might suffice) or military personnel in a war zone (for whom delivery to a commanding officer might suffice). Id.5
The dissenters did not take notice of another objection that has become apparent since Houston. Not only do people such as U.S. citizens abroad or military personnel occupy positions analogous to prisoners, but Houston also need not be limited to notices of appeal. Indeed, the ratio decidendi of Houston's holding depends not at all on the type of paper filed but rather on prisoners' confinement and lack of control over their lawsuits. We should not be surprised, then, to find that other circuits have extended the Houston rule to other scenarios not explicitly within Houston's holding.
In Lewis v. Richmond City Police Department, 947 F.2d 733 (4th Cir. 1991), for example, the Fourth Circuit extended Houston to cover the issue before us today. In Lewis, a pro se prisoner gave his complaint to prison authorities before the limitations period expired, but the clerk of the district court did not stamp the complaint "filed" until after the period expired. Id. at 734-35. The court found the language of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5(e) to be "so similar to the Rules at issue in Houston. . . that it permits an identical interpretation." Id. at 736. Moreover, "Houston itself gives no indication that it should be limited to habeas corpus appeals." Id. At least two other circuits and one district court have followed Lewis's lead in expanding Houston to complaints filed by prisoners with the clerk after the limitations period has expired. Dory v. Ryan, 999 F.2d 679, 682 (2d Cir. 1993), modified on other grounds on reh'g, 25 F.3d 81 (1994); Garvey v. Vaughn, 993 F.2d 776, 780, 781 & n.13 (11th Cir. 1993); Higgenbottom v. McManus, 840 F. Supp. 454, 455-56 (W.D. Ky. 1994). Each opinion emphasizes the status of the pro se prisoner as litigant, not the type of filing. Dory, 999 F.2d at 682 ("The foundation of Houston is the inherent disadvantage suffered by the pro se litigant in his inability to monitor the course of his litigation."); Garvey, 993 F.2d at 780 ("Central to the Court's holding in Houston is its concern for fairness in recognition of the 'unique' disadvantages of an incarcerated pro se litigant for court filings."); Higgenbottom, 840 F. Supp. at 455-56 ("Extending Houston's mailbox rule . . . extends no special privilege to [a prisoner], but merely takes into consideration the unique disabilities that [his] status forces upon him.") (footnote omitted).
The Third Circuit has interpreted Houston both broadly, see In re Flanagan, 999 F.2d 753, 755 (3d Cir. 1993) (extending Houston to a pro se prisoner's appeal to the district court from an order of the bankruptcy court), and narrowly, see Shendock v. Director, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs, 893 F.2d 1458, 1465-66 (3d Cir.) (refusing to extend "the precise holding" of Houston to a petition for administrative review filed by a pro se litigant who was not a prisoner), cert. denied, 498 U.S. 826, 111 S. Ct. 81, 112 L. Ed. 2d 53 (1990). Our Circuit even has proposed a companion test to Houston to deal with the related problem of document flow to a prisoner. See United States v. Grana, 864 F.2d 312, 316 (3d Cir. 1989) (holding that "any prison delay in transmitting to the prisoner notice of the district court's final order or judgment shall be excluded from the computation of an appellant's time for taking an appeal").
In the light of this canvass of authority, we hesitate to dismiss Jackson's claim under the straightforward application of Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 3 and 5(e) that we described in Part B.1. We recognize, however, that there is no binding authority that compels us either to grant or deny the motion.
We believe that six reasons counsel against creating a mailbox rule for pro se prisoner complaints. First, as the dissent in Houston rightly argued, the Houston rule altered unambiguous language without finding an underlying constitutional violation. See Houston, 108 S. Ct. at 2385-86. Certainly Houston has constitutional ramifications or overtones; by altering the clear language of Rules 3 and 5, the Court may well have avoided a series of due process questions. In the absence of a constitutional violation, however, courts have a duty to apply plain and unambiguous language enacted pursuant to Congressionally prescribed procedures.
Cf. United States v. Ron Pair Enterprises, Inc., 489 U.S. 235, 109 S. Ct. 1026, 1031, 103 L. Ed. 2d 290 (1989) ("The plain meaning of legislation should be conclusive, except in the 'rare cases [in which] the literal application of a statute will produce a result demonstrably at odds with the intentions of its drafters.'") (alteration in original) (citation omitted); McNeil v. United States, 124 L. Ed. 2d 21, 113 S. Ct. 1980, 1983 (1993) ("We are not free to rewrite [unambiguous] statutory text.").
Certainly no one would doubt the power of Article III judges to prevent prison administrators from intentionally delaying prisoners' access to the courts by delaying their legal filings. Yet we would hesitate to alter clear statutory language merely on the presumption that such violations could happen in the future. Moreover, to presume that prison administrators would wilfully deny prisoners' constitutional rights, see Houston, 108 S. Ct. at 2383 -- without a showing that they have in fact done so -- seems to disregard the deference that we owe to prison administrators as public officials. See, e.g., Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 99 S. Ct. 1861 at 1878, 60 L. Ed. 2d 447 (1979).
Second, it is only too clear to us that a broad application of the Houston rule would create an excessive administrative burden for the district courts. A mailbox rule for pro se prisoners' complaints would create as a collateral issue in any close case the date on which a prisoner handed over his complaint to prison administrators.
Represented litigants (or pro se litigants who are not prisoners) could enforce an expired statute of limitations only through extended (and collateral) motion practice, creating delay and raising costs. Rule 1 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure instructs us that the federal rules "shall be construed and administered to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action," and a broad application of the Houston rule unquestionably deviates from this clear command.
The facts in Houston illustrate the difficulty in administering such a rule. The Houston Court sought to reconcile (1) the date the prisoner handed his notice of appeal to prison officials; (2) the postmark on the envelope (which had been lost); (3) the date in the prison log (which was ambiguous); (4) the date that the Clerk of the District Court received the notice of appeal; and (5) the date that the Clerk stamped the notice as "filed". Houston, 108 S. Ct. at 2381.
In many cases, however, written evidence will be entirely ambiguous, or entirely absent. If, as is likely, the prisoner "remembers" handing over the complaint before the deadline, and, as is also likely, the prison administrator has no memory of the event at all, a court will not be able to resolve the limitations issue until trial, when it -- or the jury -- is allowed to make credibility determinations.
Third, the Houston rule becomes less persuasive in its application to the issue before us (to wit, an allegedly expired limitations period). The Houston rule is a natural response to a short period of time in which a litigant must assert or lose rights. In Pennsylvania, however, a § 1983 litigant will lose his claim only after two years have passed; the discovery rule of Sandutch will ensure that every § 1983 claimant has a full two years to assert his claim. Sandutch, supra, 684 F.2d at 254; see also Hauptmann v. Wilentz, 570 F. Supp. 351, 396 (D.N.J. 1983), aff'd without op., 770 F.2d 1070 (1985), cert. denied, 106 S. Ct. 887 (1986). If a pro se prisoner fails to mail his complaint to the clerk of the court until the last moment, then the fault for delay rests in large measure upon him.
Fourth, the policies of finality and repose counsel strict application of statutes of limitation. See, e.g., United States v. Kubrick, 444 U.S. 111, 100 S. Ct. 352, 356-57, 62 L. Ed. 2d 259 (1979) ("Statutes of limitations . . . represent a pervasive legislative judgment that it is unjust to fail to put the adversary on notice to defend within a specified period of time and that 'the right to be free of stale claims in time comes to prevail over the right to prosecute them.'") (citations omitted); cf. Wilson v. Garcia, supra, 105 S. Ct. at 1944 ("Just determinations of fact cannot be made when, because of the passage of time, the memories of witnesses have faded or evidence is lost. In compelling circumstances, even wrongdoers are entitled to assume that their sins may be forgotten."). Application of the Houston rule to statutes of limitations would create an uncertainty for defendants, for whom finality would depend in part upon whether a plaintiff had been incarcerated, and, if so, whether the plaintiff had a lawyer or not.
Our Court of Appeals has also recognized the "strong policy considerations underlying the enactment of statutes of limitation." United States v. Richardson, 889 F.2d 37, 40 (3d Cir. 1989). In Richardson, our Court of Appeals counselled that "limitations periods are intended to put defendants on notice of adverse claims and to prevent plaintiffs from sleeping on their rights. . . . [They] are not 'simple technicalities,' but rather, 'fundamental to a well-ordered judicial system.'" Id. (citation omitted).
Fifth, as we have suggested above,
the extension of Houston to these cases effectively exempts pro se prisoners from all of the deadlines of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure as well as adds an elasticity to the statute of limitations unique to them. These consequences have the perverse result of introducing a disincentive for prisoners seeking or accepting the appointment of counsel, because represented prisoners would not enjoy these wholesale exemptions. This new disincentive would be doubly perverse in view of our Court of Appeals' recent encouragement to district judges to appoint lawyers in such cases. See Tabron v. Grace, 6 F.3d 147 (3d Cir. 1993).
Finally, as a practical matter, we note that, of the five justices who constituted the majority in Houston, four have retired from the Court. It is uncertain whether the Court would decide Houston similarly today, and it is even less certain whether five justices would now extend the Houston rule to statutes of limitations.
Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 78 S. Ct. 99, 102, 2 L. Ed. 2d 80 (1957), instructs us that a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim may only be granted if "it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." In this case, Jackson's claim accrued on June 11, 1994, yet the Clerk did not receive and file the complaint until July 11, 1994. Thus, we conclude that Pennsylvania's two-year statute of limitations bars Jackson's claim.
An appropriate Order follows.
AND NOW, this 21st day of December, 1994, upon consideration of defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiff's complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), and for the reasons set forth in the accompanying Amended Memorandum filed this day, it is hereby ORDERED that:
1. Our prior Order dated October 28, 1994 is VACATED;
2. Our prior Memorandum dated October 28, 1994 is AMENDED, as attached to this Order;
3. The defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiff's complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) is GRANTED for the reasons set forth in the attached, amended version of our Memorandum of October 28, 1994; and
4. The Clerk SHALL CLOSE this case statistically.
BY THE COURT:
Stewart Dalzell, J.
MR. LAMONT JACKSON SR.
(Prison) 1 Kelly Drive
Coal Township, Pa. 17866
December 29, 1994
CASE # 94-4229-CV
(HOME) MR. LAMONT JACKSON SR.
1930 W. 69th Avenue
Philadelphia, Pa. 19138
To : Stewart Dalzell, J./Michael E. Kunz
Attn: United States
Eastern District Court
Philadelphia, Pa. 19106-1797
To Whom this may concern:
In respect to the decision for the defendants, Officers Joseph Nicoletti & Remshaw which was granted in their favor. I, Lamont Jackson Sr would like to ask the Eastern District Court, for a reconsideration on their judgement order dated December 21, 1994 - in light of the Pa. Statue Supreme Court Ruling Hardin v. Straub, 490 U.S. 536, 109 S. Ct. 1998, 104 2, 104 L. Ed. 2d 582.Ed. 2d 582 (1989) overruling Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 105 S. Ct. 1938, 1944, 85 L. Ed. 2d 254 (1985) "for persons that are incarcerated. " Also, Pa. Statutes Annotated, Title 12, Section 1890, which provides that the statue is tolled until 2 years after the inmate is released from prison.
Meanwhile, I do appreciate and respect all the information and help that has been done thus far. I still haven't had a lawyer personally speak to me concerning this situation and civil suite case. So all of this information that I have come up with over the period of time, is from advice, and pre-mature knowledge of the law.
Thanks for all of your help, and the point I'm trying to enforce, is that I was injured uncalled for, on behalf of police brutality on 6-11-92.
Happy New Years
Respectfully, Mr. Lamont Jackson Sr.