The opinion of the court was delivered by: STEWART DALZELL
Amended December 21, 1994
Plaintiff Lamont R. Jackson is an inmate at the State Correctional Institution in Coal Township, Pennsylvania. In this § 1983 action, Jackson alleges that defendants, Philadelphia police officers Joseph Nicoletti and Vincent Remshaw, used excessive force when they arrested him.
Nicoletti and Remshaw have moved to dismiss the action under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing that the complaint is time-barred. For the reasons set forth below, we will grant the motion.
Dates are, as will be seen, critical to our discussion. The officers arrested Jackson on June 11, 1992. Jackson signed his complaint on June 1, 1994.
The envelope in which Jackson mailed his complaint to the Clerk lacks a postmark, but the Pitney-Bowes metered stamp on the envelope reads July 8, 1994. The Clerk of this Court received Jackson's complaint and stamped it "filed" on July 11, 1994.
On October 6, 1994, we issued an Order requiring Jackson to answer two questions: (1) "What did you do to get your complaint in this case mailed to federal court?"; and (2) "When did you give your complaint . . . to anyone at the prison for mailing to federal court (give the day, month, and year)?" For reasons that will become clear below, we had hoped to learn the date on which Jackson gave his complaint to prison administrators for mailing, as well as the procedure by which the state prison handles a prisoner's legal mail. Jackson's answers were for the most part unhelpful to this inquiry.
When considering a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), we of course must take all allegations contained in the complaint as true and construe them in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. H.J. Inc. v. Northwestern Bell Tel. Co., 492 U.S. 229, 109 S. Ct. 2893, 2906, 106 L. Ed. 2d 195 (1989); Rocks v. City of Philadelphia, 868 F.2d 644, 645 (3d Cir. 1989). We may grant a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted only 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." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 78 S. Ct. 99, 102, 2 L. Ed. 2d 80 (1957); Frazier v. Southeastern Pa. Transp. Auth., 785 F.2d 65, 66 (3d Cir. 1986).
Normally, parties will not learn that a limitations period has expired until the discovery phase of the trial. Thus, in most cases Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 will be the proper vehicle for dismissal. If, however, the face of pleading reveals that the limitations period has expired, then a Court may dismiss the action under Rule 12(b)(6). See Clark v. Sears Roebuck & Co., 816 F. Supp. 1064, 1067 (E.D. Pa. 1993). This exception is consistent with the legal standard of Rule 12(b)(6): a plaintiff who admits that a limitations period has expired can prove no set of facts under which he may recover.
The first two steps of our analysis -- determining the limitations period and the date on which Jackson's claim accrued -- involve the straightforward application of existing law. In the third step of our analysis -- determining whether Jackson filed his action within the limitations period -- we encounter an important, unaddressed issue of law.
A. Determination of the Limitations Period and the Date of Accrual
Section 1983 does not have an explicit limitations period. The Supreme Court has established that state statutes of limitations govern § 1983 claims. Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 105 S. Ct. 1938, 1943-47, 85 L. Ed. 2d 254 (1985); Owens v. Okure, 488 U.S. 235, 109 S. Ct. 573, 581-82, 102 L. Ed. 2d 594 (1989). Wilson held that courts should apply a state's personal injury statute of limitations to § 1983 claims. Wilson, 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 ...