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Mark Cohen v. Prior Pratt

April 11, 2011


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


Mark Cohen sued Philadelphia Police Officers Prior Pratt, Anthony Waters, and Stanley Sanford for civil rights violations stemming from his arrest for drug possession on April 6, 2007. His conviction was subsequently overturned. Defendants seek to dismiss his federal and state false arrest and imprisonment claims, and his assault and battery claim, because the statute of limitations has run. Cohen maintains that the statute of limitations should be equitably tolled because he was prevented from timely pressing these claims based on the controlling law at the time of his arrest and conviction. Cohen raises an interesting legal question of whether refusing to toll the statute of limitations punishes Plaintiff for not anticipating a change in the law.*fn1 Nonetheless, the Court concludes that equitable tolling is not warranted under the circumstances and will therefore grant Defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings.


On April 6, 2006 Cohen was playing basketball at a park near the intersection of North 52nd Street and Warminster Avenue. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 7, 10.) At the direction of Officer Pratt, Philadelphia Police Officer Anthony Waters approached Cohen, pointed a gun at him, handcuffed him, and placed his knee in Cohen's back. (Id. ¶¶ 11-12.) Officer Waters searched Cohen and confiscated Cohen's money but did not find any drugs or drug paraphernalia. (Id. ¶¶ 13-14.) Officer Waters and Officer Sanford also searched a bushy area nearby but uncovered no contraband. (Id. ¶ 15.) Cohen was handcuffed and transported to the police station where he was detained overnight. (Id. ¶¶ 16-17.) Defendants lacked probable cause to arrest or search Cohen. (Id. ¶¶ 12-13, 18.)

The Amended Complaint references Officer Pratt's police report related to the incident in question. Officer Pratt stated that on four occasions in a half-hour time span, he saw an individual approach Cohen and give him money. (Id. ¶ 8.) Cohen then went to a bushy area and picked up a plastic baggie from which he retrieved unknown objects and put the baggie back down in the bushy area. (Id.) Next, Cohen returned to the individual who had given him the money and gave that individual the unknown objects. (Id.)

Based on Officer Pratt's false report, Cohen was charged with knowing and intentional possession of a controlled substance and possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. (Id. ¶¶ 9, 18.) Cohen was detained for days but was eventually released on bail. (Id. ¶ 19.) During his bench trial, Officer Pratt told the same false story that he provided in his police report. (Id. ¶ 20.) As a result, on August 14, 2006, Cohen was convicted of the possession charge and sentenced to eleven and a half to twenty-three months in jail. (Id. ¶ 21.) On September 14, 2007, the Superior Court vacated his conviction because there was insufficient evidence to support it. (Id. ¶¶ 22-23.)

On February 2, 2009, Cohen filed an application to proceed in forma pauperis. On March 16, 2009 Cohen filed this lawsuit. This Court appointed counsel for Cohen and an Amended Complaint was filed on January 16, 2011. The Amended Complaint includes federal claims for illegal search, seizure, and arrest; and malicious prosecution; as well as Pennsylvania state law claims for false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, and assault and battery.


Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) permits motions for judgment on the pleadings after pleadings are closed, "but early enough not to delay trial." Judgment on the pleadings is appropriate where the movant shows "that no material issue of fact remains to be resolved and that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Rosenau v. Unifund Corp., 539 F.3d 218, 221 (3d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Undertaking this analysis, courts view the facts in the pleadings and inferences to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Sikirica v. Nationwide Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 214, 220 (3d Cir. 2005). When deciding a motion for judgment on the pleadings, "a court generally should consider only the allegations in the complaint, as well as 'documents that are attached to or submitted with the complaint, . . . and any matters incorporated by reference or integral to the claim, items subject to judicial notice, matters of public record, orders, [and] items appearing in the record of the case.'" Fisher v. Rite Aid Corp., Civ. A. No. 10-1865, 2011 WL 539049, at *1 (M.D. Pa. Feb. 16, 2011) (quoting Buck v. Hampton Twp. Sch. Dist., 452 F.3d 256, 260 (3d Cir. 2006)).


Defendants have moved for a judgment on the pleadings to dismiss Cohen's federal and state illegal search, seizure and arrest claims as well as the assault and battery and false imprisonment claims. They contend that all of these claims are barred by the statute of limitations.

Federal courts look to the state's personal injury law to determine the appropriate statute of limitations in § 1983 cases. Wallace v. Keto, 549 U.S. 384, 387 (2007). The parties agree that Pennsylvania's two-year statute of limitations governs Cohen's federal and state claims. See Kach v. Hose, 589 F.3d 626, 634 (3d Cir. 2009) ("The statute of limitations for a § 1983 claim arising in Pennsylvania is two years.") (citing 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5524(2)). The accrual date of a § 1983 cause of action is a question of federal law. Wallace, 549 U.S. at 388.

Defendants contend that the statute of limitations runs from the time Cohen knew or should have known the cause of his injury. (Defs.' Mem. of Law in Supp. of Mot. for J. on the Pleadings at 7.) Furthermore, the fact that Cohen later obtained a favorable result in his criminal case does not affect the date of accrual for his false arrest, false imprisonment, and assault and battery claims. (Id. at 7-9.) Because the incident underlying these claims occurred on April 6, 2006, Plaintiff's application to proceed in forma pauperis, filed on February 9, 2009, was filed outside the statute of limitations. (Id. at 8-9.) Therefore, those claims that do not require Cohen to prove that his criminal conviction was overturned must be dismissed as time-barred.

Cohen counters that the claims stemming from his April 6, 2006 arrest and detention are not time-barred because success on those claims would necessarily have called into question the validity of his conviction contrary to the Supreme Court's decision in Heck v. Humphrey. (Pl.'s Resp. to Defs.' Mot. for J. on the Pleadings [Pl.'s Resp.] at 1, 6.) Pennsylvania law also barred his claims prior to the overturning of his conviction. (Id. at 9-10.) Therefore, barring his claims now ...

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