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Charles Jackson v. Sci-Camp Hill

September 11, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: William W. Caldwell United States District Judge


I. Introduction

The pro se plaintiff, Charles Jackson, filed this civil-rights action while he was a Pennsylvania inmate confined at SCI-Camp Hill in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. Plaintiff was serving a five- to ten-year sentence on several convictions imposed in 2007 in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.*fn1 He has sued to recover $488.15 in court costs he alleges were illegally deducted from his inmate account, in part, as a violation of his Fourth Amendment right against an unreasonable seizure and his Fourteenth Amendment right to procedural due process. Named as defendants are the "Corrections Defendants": SCI-Camp Hill; the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC); and Robert Gimble, a business manager at Camp Hill. Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, is also a defendant. We are considering two motions to dismiss, one filed by the Corrections Defendants, and the other by Allegheny County.

II. Standard of Review

In considering a motion to dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), "[w]e 'accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief.'" Byers v. Intuit, Inc., 600 F.3d 286, 291 (3d Cir. 2010) (quoted case omitted). The court is not limited to evaluating the complaint alone; it can also consider documents attached to the complaint, matters of public record, indisputably authentic documents, Delaware Nation v. Pennsylvania, 446 F.3d 410, 413 n.2 (3d Cir. 2006), documents that form the basis of a claim, Lum v. Bank of America, 361 F.3d 217, 221 n.3 (3d Cir. 2004), and "documents whose contents are alleged in the complaint and whose authenticity no party questions," even though they "are not physically attached to the pleading . . . ." Pryor v. Nat'l Collegiate Athletic Ass'n, 288 F.3d 548, 560 (3d Cir. 2002).

III. Background

Plaintiff started this lawsuit by filing his original complaint on June 15, 2011.

In pertinent part, his amended complaint alleges as follows. Plaintiff was sentenced on December 6, 2007, to five to ten years' imprisonment, without the imposition of court costs or fines. (Doc. 26, Am. Compl. ¶ 1, ECF p. 1,; doc. 26-1, ECF p. 1, sentencing order). The sentencing order imposed the "prosecution" costs on Allegheny County. (Doc. 26-1, ECF p. 1, sentencing order). Nonetheless, SCI-Camp Hill and Gimble "fraudulently deducted 20% of his income [from his inmate account] over several years, claiming that it was for court costs" under Act 84, "knowing all of the time that" the sentencing order required Allegheny County to pay the court costs. (Doc. 26, Am. Compl. ¶ 4, ECF p. 1).*fn2 These deductions began on December 12, 2007. (Id., ¶ 2, ECF p. 9). Further, Allegheny County accepted payment of these deduction from SCI-Camp Hill even though it knew the funds were obtained fraudulently and was a "willing participant" in that "fraudulent activity." (Id. ¶ 21, ECF p. 4).

Although the sentencing order imposed no costs on Plaintiff, a "commitment order" prepared on the same day by a clerk in the then office of the Clerk of Courts for Allegheny County did indicate Plaintiff was obligated to pay costs in the amount of $677.85. (Doc. 29, ECF p. 3).*fn3 The commitment order was fraudulent. (Doc. 26, Am. Compl. ¶ 1, ECF p. 9). After Plaintiff sent Camp Hill officials a copy of his sentencing order in March 2010, (Id. ¶¶ 5 and 8, ECF p. 2; doc. 26-1, ECF p. 5), the prison stopped the deductions, (Doc. 26, Am. Compl. ¶ 6), which by that time totaled $488.15.

Plaintiff attempted to obtain a refund of the $488.15 by using the prison grievance system, beginning with a series of grievances on March 29, 2010, and culminating with a grievance filed with SCI-Camp Hill's superintendent. (Doc. 26-1, ECF pp. 5-23). He was unsuccessful, although on March 21, 2011, in response to his grievance appeal, Camp Hill's superintendent agreed with him that he was owed the money and that the matter would be referred to Allegheny County "since they now have the funds." (Doc. 26-1, ECF p. 23).*fn4 The superintendent's response echoed advice Plaintiff received from other prison officials that he contact Allegheny County about the erroneous payments. (Doc. 26, Am. Compl. ¶¶ 9 and 13, ECF pp. 2-3; doc. 26-1, ECF p. 10).

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Plaintiff sets forth two federal civil rights claims: (1) a Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process claim asserting he was not given notice and opportunity to respond before the deductions were made from his inmate account; and (2) a Fourth Amendment claim for the seizure of the money. Plaintiff also makes a state-law claim for fraud.*fn5 He seeks compensatory and punitive damages.

IV. Discussion

A. The Statute of Limitations Bars the Due Process Claim But Not the Fourth Amendment Seizure Claim

Both motions argue that the federal claims should be dismissed on the basis of the statute of limitations. The statute of limitations for section 1983 claims arising in Pennsylvania is two years. Kach v. Hose, 589 F.3d 626, 634 (3d Cir. 2009). The Correctional Defendants and Allegheny County argue that the federal claims are untimely because Plaintiff alleges the deductions began on December 12, 2007, giving Plaintiff until December 12, 2009, to file suit, but Plaintiff did not do so until June 15, 2011, about seven months after the statute of limitations expired. In support of this analysis, they cite Greer v. DiGuglielmo, No. 08-1110, 2009 WL 812715 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 25, 2009), aff'd, 348 F. App'x 702 (3d Cir. 2009) (nonprecedential). In Greer, the court ruled, and was upheld on appeal, that a civil-rights complaint about Act 84 deductions was untimely when the plaintiff's complaint alleged that he had learned about the deductions on September 2, 2002, but did not file suit until some three and one-half years after the two-year limitations period expired. 2009 WL 812715, at *2.

In opposition, Plaintiff makes two arguments. First, the lawsuit is timely because the statute runs from "when the plaintiff knew or should have known of the injury upon which [his] action is based." Kach, supra, 589 F.3d at 634 (brackets added) (quoting Sameric Corp. of Delaware, Inc. v. City of Philadelphia, 142 F.3d 582, 599 (3d Cir. 1998); Williams v. Prison Health Sys., 470 F. App'x 59, 61 (3d Cir. 2012)

(nonprecedential) ("A § 1983 cause of action accrues on the date when a plaintiff knew or should have known his rights had been violated."). For Plaintiff, this would be the day in March 2010 when he discovered that the sentencing order did not impose any court costs on him. His lawsuit is thus timely because he filed it on June 15, 2011, well before the expiration of the limitations period in March 2012. Second, Plaintiff argues that the statute should be tolled until March 2010 because the defendants committed fraud with the commitment order and in the exercise of reasonable diligence, he could only have discovered this fraud in March 2010. See Koehnke v. City of McKeesport, 350 F. App'x 720, 723-24 (3d Cir. 2009) (nonprecedential) (applying Pennsylvania's discovery rule that allows tolling of the statute of limitations until the plaintiff, through no fault of his own, discovers his injury as long as the plaintiff shows "reasonable diligence in determining the existence and cause of his injury) (quoted case omitted). As against Allegheny County's motion, Plaintiff specifically argues Defendants engaged in fraudulent concealment. See Mest v. Cabot Corp., 449 F.3d 502, 516 (3d Cir. 2006) ("Pennsylvania's fraudulent concealment doctrine tolls the statute of limitations where 'through fraud or concealment the defendant causes the plaintiff to relax vigilance or deviate from the right of inquiry.'") (quoted case omitted). With the statute tolled until March 2010, the lawsuit is again timely when filed on June 15, 2011.

We conclude that the procedural due process claim is time-barred. There could not have been any fraud or concealment in regard to this claim, nor can Plaintiff argue he could not have known about this claim before March 2010. Plaintiff makes no argument that he did not know about the deductions when they began on December 12, 2007, or shortly thereafter, and he certainly would also have been aware at the same time that he had received no predeprivation hearing beforehand. The due process claim is therefore untimely as the lawsuit was filed about seven months after the statute of limitations expired.

We reach a different conclusion on the Fourth Amendment claim. On this claim, we do have to consider Plaintiff's allegation that the commitment order was fraudulent. The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. Free Speech Coalition, Inc. v. Attorney General, 677 F.3d 519, 542 (3d Cir. 2012). If the commitment order provided fraudulent information about court costs, Plaintiff may not have had reason to know that the deduction from his inmate account was not reasonable. We therefore cannot dismiss the Fourth Amendment claim on the basis of the statute of limitations.

B. Failure to Exhaust Administrative ...

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