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Herman v. Lackawanna County

United States District Court, Third Circuit

August 1, 2013

RANDY HERMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
LACKAWANNA COUNTY, et al., Defendants.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

MARTIN C. CARLSON, Magistrate Judge.

I. Statement of Facts and of the Case

The plaintiff, who is proceeding pro se, filed this particular complaint on June 21, 2013, which named Lackawanna County, Lackawanna County Domestic Relations, and two individual staff members of the Lackawanna County Domestic Relations office as defendants. Herman's complaint is devoid of any factual recitals, beyond a general assertion that the actions of the defendants were improper and unreasonable. Instead, in lieu of reciting facts, Herman simply refers to a prior lawsuit which he filed, Herman v. Lackawanna, No. 3:09-CV-1238, a case which was dismissed by this court for failure to prosecute some three years ago in 2010. That prior case, in turn, alleged matters spanning from 2005 through 2008, and thus recited factual matters which are now 4-to-8 years old.

Along with this complaint, Herman has filed a motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis. (Doc. 2.) For the reasons set forth below, we will grant this motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis (Doc. 2.) but recommend that the court dismiss Herman's complaint for failure to timely state a claim upon which relief can be granted, without prejudice to allowing Herman to attempt to correct the deficiencies noted in this complaint by filing an amended complaint which sets forth claims within the period of the statute of limitations.

II. Discussion

A. Screening of Pro Se In Forma Pauperis Complaints-Standard of Review

This court has a statutory obligation to conduct a preliminary review of pro se complaints brought by persons who seek leave to proceed in forma pauperis. Specifically, we are obliged to review the complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e) which provides, in pertinent part: "[T]he court shall dismiss the case at any time if the court determines that - (A) the allegation of poverty is untrue; or (B) the action or appeal-(i) is frivolous or malicious; (ii) fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted; or (iii) seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief." 28 U.S.C. § 1915 (e). This statutory text mirrors the language of Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides that a complaint should be dismissed for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).

With respect to this benchmark standard for legal sufficiency of a complaint, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has aptly noted the evolving standards governing pleading practice in federal court, stating that:

Standards of pleading have been in the forefront of jurisprudence in recent years. Beginning with the Supreme Court's opinion in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544 (2007) continuing with our opinion in Phillips [v. County of Allegheny , 515 F.3d 224, 230 (3d Cir. 2008)]and culminating recently with the Supreme Court's decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal ___ U.S. ___ , 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009) pleading standards have seemingly shifted from simple notice pleading to a more heightened form of pleading, requiring a plaintiff to plead more than the possibility of relief to survive a motion to dismiss.

Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside , 578 F.3d 203, 209-10 (3d Cir. 2009).

In considering whether a complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, the court must accept as true all allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the complaint are to be construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Jordan v. Fox Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel, Inc. , 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994). However, a court "need not credit a complaint's bald assertions or legal conclusions when deciding a motion to dismiss." Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist. , 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). Additionally a court need not "assume that a... plaintiff can prove facts that the... plaintiff has not alleged." Associated Gen. Contractors of Cal. v. California State Council of Carpenters , 459 U.S. 519, 526 (1983). As the Supreme Court held in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544 (2007), in order to state a valid cause of action a plaintiff must provide some factual grounds for relief which "requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of actions will not do." Id. at 555. "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id . In keeping with the principles of Twombly, the Supreme Court has underscored that a trial court must assess whether a complaint states facts upon which relief can be granted when ruling on a motion to dismiss. In Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009), the Supreme Court held that, when considering a motion to dismiss, a court should "begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth." Id. at 1950. According to the Supreme Court, "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id. at 1949. Rather, in conducting a review of the adequacy of complaint, the Supreme Court has advised trial courts that they must:

[B]egin by identifying pleadings that because they are no more than conclusions are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations. When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.

Id. at 1950.

Thus, following Twombly and Iqbal a well-pleaded complaint must contain more than mere legal labels and conclusions. Rather, a complaint must recite factual allegations sufficient to raise the plaintiff's claimed right to relief beyond the level of mere speculation. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has stated:

[A]fter Iqbal, when presented with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, district courts should conduct a two-part analysis. First, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated. The District Court must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions. Second, a District Court must then determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a "plausible claim for relief." In other words, a complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief. A complaint has to "show" such an entitlement with its facts.

Fowler , 578 F.3d at 210-11.

In practice, consideration of the legal sufficiency of a complaint entails a three-step analysis: "First, the court must tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim.' Iqbal , 129 S.Ct. at 1947. Second, the court should identify allegations that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.' Id. at 1950. Finally, where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement for relief.' Id." Santiago v. Warminster Tp. , 629 F.3d 121, 130 (3d Cir. 2010).

In addition to these pleading rules, a civil complaint must comply with the requirements of Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure which defines what a complaint should say and provides that:

(a) A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain: (1) a short and plain statement of the grounds for the court's jurisdiction, unless the court already has jurisdiction and the claim needs no new jurisdictional support; (2) a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief; and (3) a demand for the relief sought, which may include relief in the alternative or different types of relief.

Thus, when a complaint is "illegible or incomprehensible, " id., or when a complaint "is also largely unintelligible, " Stephanatos v. Cohen , 236 F.Appx. 785, 787 (3d Cir. 2007), an order dismissing a complaint under Rule 8 is clearly appropriate. See, e.g., Mincy v. Klem , 303 F.Appx. 106 (3d Cir. 2008); Rhett v. New Jersey State Superior Court , 260 F.Appx. 513 (3d Cir. 2008); Stephanatos v. Cohen, supra ; Scibelli v. Lebanon County, supra ; Bennett-Nelson v. La. Bd. of Regents , 431 F.3d 448, 450 n.1 (5th Cir. 2005). Furthermore, dismissal under Rule 8 is proper when a complaint "left the defendants having to guess what of the many things discussed constituted [a cause of action];" Binsack v. Lackawanna County Prison , 438 F.Appx. 158 (3d Cir. 2011), or when the complaint is so "rambling and unclear" as to defy response. Tillio v. Spiess, No. 11-1276 , 2011 WL 3346787 (Aug. 4, 2011).[1]

In short, a well-pleaded complaint must contain more than mere legal labels and conclusions. Rather, a pro se plaintiff's complaint must comply with the statute of limitations, and recite factual allegations which are sufficient to raise the plaintiff's claimed right to relief beyond the level of mere speculation, set forth in a "short and plain" statement of a cause of action. Applying these standards, we find that this complaint, in its present form, is subject to summary dismissal.

B. This Complaint Violates Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure

At the outset, dismissal of this complaint is warranted because the complaint fails to comply with Rule 8's basic injunction that: "A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain... a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief. " Dismissal of this complaint is appropriate since it is well-settled that: "[t]he Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that a complaint contain a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ' Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), and that each averment be concise, and direct, ' Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(e)(1)." Scibelli v. Lebanon County , 219 F.Appx. 221, 222 (3d Cir. 2007). Thus, when a complaint is "illegible or incomprehensible", id., or when a complaint "is also largely unintelligible, " Stephanatos v. Cohen , 236 F.Appx. 785, 787 (3d Cir. 2007), an order dismissing a complaint under Rule 8 is clearly appropriate. See, e.g., Mincy v. Klem , 303 F.Appx. 106 (3d Cir. 2008); Rhett v. New Jersey State Superior Court , 260 F.Appx. 513 (3d Cir. 2008); Stephanatos v. Cohen. supra ; Scibelli v. Lebanon County, supra ; Bennett-Nelson v. La. Bd. of Regents , 431 F.3d 448, 450 n.1 (5th Cir. 2005).

Furthermore, dismissal under Rule 8 is proper when a complaint "left the defendants having to guess what of the many things discussed constituted [a cause of action];" Binsack v. Lackawanna County Prison , 438 F.Appx. 158 (3d Cir. 2011), or when the complaint is so "rambling and unclear" as to defy response. Tillio v. Spiess, No. 11-1276 , 2011 WL 3346787 (Aug. 4, 2011). Finally, a complaint may be dismissed under Rule 8 when the pleading is simply illegible and cannot be understood. See, e.g., Moss v. United States , 329 F.Appx. 335 (3d Cir. 2009)(dismissing illegible complaint); Radin v. Jersey City Medical Center, 375 F.Appx. 205 (3d Cir. 2010); Earnest v. Ling, 140 F.Appx. 431 (3d Cir. 2005)(dismissing complaint where "complaint fails to clearly identify which parties [the plaintiff] seeks to sue"); Oneal v. U.S. Fed. Prob., CIV.A. 05-5509 (MLC), 2006 WL 758301 (D.N.J. Mar. 22, 2006)(dismissing complaint consisting of approximately 50 pages of mostly-illegible handwriting); Gearhart v. City of Philadelphia Police, CIV.A.06-0130, 2006 WL 446071 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 21, 2006) (dismissing illegible complaint).

Here, Herman's complaint recites no well-pleaded facts, but rather simply refers to a prior lawsuit, which was dismissed for failure to prosecute some three years ago, and which only alleged facts falling far beyond the applicable statute of limitations. This complaint, therefore, hardly "contain[s] a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ' Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), and [fails to meet Rule 8's requirement] that each averment be concise, and direct, ' Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(e)(1)." Scibelli v. Lebanon County , 219 F.Appx. 221, 222 (3d Cir. 2007). Further, it is virtually impossible to ascertain the legal and factual significance of Herman's allegations in the absence of some well-pleaded facts. Thus, we are "left... having to guess what of the many things discussed constituted [a cause of action]." Binsack v. Lackawanna County Prison , 438 F.Appx. 158 (3d Cir. 2011). In such instances, Rule 8 calls for the dismissal of the complaint with instructions that the plaintiff prepare a more coherent document which complies with the strictures of the federal rules of civil procedure.

C. Herman's Current Complaint Fails to Meet the Pleading Standards Prescribed by Law Because The Claims Set Forth in the Complaint Are Barred by the Statute of Limitations

Herman's current pro se complaint also clearly fails to state a claim within the period of the statute of limitations upon which relief can be granted. In this regard, when conducting a screening review of a pro se complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1915, a court may consider whether the complaint is barred under the applicable statute of limitations. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently explained when it affirmed the screening dismissal of a pro se complaint on statute of limitations grounds:

Civil rights claims are subject to the statute of limitations for personal injury actions of the pertinent state. Thus, Pennsylvania's two year statutory period applies to [these] claims. See Lake v. Arnold , 232 F.3d 360, 368 (3d Cir.2000). The limitations period begins when the plaintiff knows or had reason to know of the injury forming the basis for the federal civil rights action. Gera v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania , 256 Fed.Appx. 563, 564-65 (3d Cir.2007). Although we have not addressed the issue in a precedential decision, other courts have held that although the statute of limitations is an affirmative defense, district court may sua sponte dismiss a complaint under § 1915(e) where the defense is obvious from the complaint and no development of the factual record is required. See Fogle v. Pierson , 435 F.3d 1252, 1258 (10th Cir.2006); see also Eriline Co. S.A. v. Johnson , 440 F.3d 648, 656-57 (4th Cir.2006) (citation omitted)(finding that a district court's screening authority under § 1915(e) "differentiates in forma pauperis suits from ordinary civil suits and justifies an exception to the general rule that a statute of limitations defense should not be raised and considered sua sponte.").

Smith v. Delaware County Court 260 F.Appx. 454, 455 (3d Cir. 2008); see also Jackson v. Fernandez, No. 08-5694 , 2009 WL 233559 (D.N.J. Jan. 26, 2009); Hurst v. City of Dover, No. 04-83 , 2008 WL 2421468 (D. Del. June 16, 2008).

Applying these standards, we find that the allegations in this pro se complaint are clearly subject to dismissal on statute of limitations grounds. Specifically, this complaint-which simply incorporates factual averments made in a prior lawsuit that was dismissed in 2010, relates to conduct spanning 2005 to 2008, some 4-to-8 years ago-but was first filed on June 21, 2013, more than two years after the last events complained of by Herman and eight years after the first of the events recited in this pleading. Therefore, on its face, the complaint is simply time-barred by the two year statute of limitations generally applicable to civil rights matters.

It is well-settled that claims brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 are subject to the state statute of limitations for personal injury actions. Wilson v. Garcia , 471 U.S. 261, 266-67 (1985). In Pennsylvania, the statute of limitations for a personal injury action is two years. 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 5524. A cause of action accrues for statute of limitations purposes when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the injury that constitutes the basis of the cause of action. Sameric Corp. of Delaware, Inc. v. City of Philadelphia , 142 F.3d 582, 599 (3d Cir. 1998); see also, Nelson v. County of Allegheny , 60 F.3d 1010 (3d Cir. 1995).

While this two-year limitations period may be extended based upon a continuing wrong theory, a plaintiff must make an exacting showing to avail himself of this grounds for tolling the statute of limitations. For example, it is well settled that the "continuing conduct of [a] defendant will not stop the ticking of the limitations clock [once] plaintiff obtained requisite information [to state a cause of action]. On discovering an injury and its cause, a claimant must choose to sue or forego that remedy." Barnes v. American Tobacco Co. , 161 F.3d 127, 154 (3d Cir. 1998) (quoting Kichline v. Consolidated Rail Corp. , 800 F.2d 356, 360 (3d Cir. 1986)). See also Lake v. Arnold , 232 F.3d 360, 266-68 (3d Cir. 2000). Instead:

The continuing violations doctrine is an "equitable exception to the timely filing requirement." West v. Philadelphia Elec. Co. , 45 F.3d 744, 754 (3d Cir.1995). Thus, "when a defendant's conduct is part of a continuing practice, an action is timely so long as the last act evidencing the continuing practice falls within the limitations period; in such an instance, the court will grant relief for the earlier related acts that would otherwise be time barred." Brenner v. Local 514, United Bhd. of Carpenters and Joiners of Am. , 927 F.2d 1283, 1295 (3d Cir.1991). In order to benefit from the doctrine, a plaintiff must establish that the defendant's conduct is "more than the occurrence of isolated or sporadic acts." West , 45 F.3d at 755 (quotation omitted). Regarding this inquiry, we have recognized that courts should consider at least three factors: (1) subject matter-whether the violations constitute the same type of discrimination, tending to connect them in a continuing violation; (2) frequency-whether the acts are recurring or more in the nature of isolated incidents; and (3) degree of permanence-whether the act had a degree of permanence which should trigger the plaintiff's awareness of and duty to assert his/her rights and whether the consequences of the act would continue even in the absence of a continuing intent to discriminate. See id. at 755 n. 9 (citing Berry v. Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State Univ. , 715 F.2d 971, 981 (5th Cir.1983)). The consideration of "degree of permanence" is the most important of the factors. See Berry , 715 F.2d at 981.

Cowell v. Palmer Township. 263 F.3d 286 , 292 (3d Cir. 2001)

In this case, Herman complains about an array of matters, which commenced in 2005 and allegedly concluded in 2008. In every instance, Herman immediately attached a high degree of significance and permanence to the events set forth in this complaint, since he filed a lawsuit that he failed to prosecute relating to these matters in 2009. Thus, Herman recites well-pleaded facts in his complaint which clearly reveal that, to the extent these events entailed violations of the plaintiff's constitutional rights, those violations were known and recognized by Herman when they first occurred, many years ago. Thus, these events plainly had the degree of significance and permanence which should have triggered the plaintiff's awareness of his duty to assert his rights. Therefore, in this case a straightforward application of the two-year statute of limitations also compels dismissal of this action as untimely.

Herman cannot save these time-barred claims by resort to the continuing violation theory since that tolling doctrine "will not stop the ticking of the limitations clock [once] plaintiff obtained requisite information [to state a cause of action]. On discovering an injury and its cause, a claimant must choose to sue or forego that remedy." Barnes v. American Tobacco Co. , 161 F.3d 127, 154 (3d Cir. 1998). Indeed, with respect to the controlling consideration relating to this equitable tolling doctrine, "the degree of permanence [of the injury, i.e.]-whether the act had a degree of permanence which should trigger the plaintiff's awareness of and duty to assert his rights, " Cowell v. Palmer Township. 263 F.3d 286 , 292 (3d Cir. 2001), it is apparent that Herman subjectively identified the gravity and permanence of these events when they occurred in 2008 since Herman brought a lawsuit in 2009 relating to these precise claims, which he later abandoned in 2010. More than two years then elapsed before Herman filed the instant complaint. On these facts, Herman simply cannot evade the bar of the statute of limitations on some continuing wrongs theory, since the wrongs, if any, committed here were fully known by Herman more than two years ago. Therefore, on the face of the complaint, these claims are all time-barred.

C. The Complaint Should be Dismissed Without Prejudice

While this screening merits analysis calls for dismissal of this action in its current form, we recommend that Herman be given another, final opportunity to further litigate this matter by endeavoring to promptly file an amended complaint setting forth claims within the period of the statute of limitations. We recommend this course mindful of the fact that in civil rights cases pro se plaintiffs often should be afforded an opportunity to amend a complaint before the complaint is dismissed in its entirety, see Fletcher-Hardee Corp. v. Pote Concrete Contractors , 482 F.3d 247, 253 (3d Cir. 2007), unless granting further leave to amend is not necessary in a case such as this where amendment would be futile or result in undue delay, Alston v. Parker , 363 F.3d 229, 235 (3d Cir. 2004). Accordingly, it is recommended that the court provide the plaintiff with an opportunity to correct these deficiencies in the pro se complaint, by dismissing this deficient complaint at this time without prejudice to one final effort by the plaintiff to comply with the rules governing civil actions in federal court, by filing an amended complaint containing any timely and proper claims which he may have.

III. Recommendation

Accordingly, for the foregoing reasons, the plaintiff's motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis be GRANTED (Doc. 2.), but IT IS RECOMMENDED that the plaintiff's complaint be dismissed without prejudice to the plaintiff endeavoring to correct the defects cited in this report, provided that the plaintiff acts within 20 days of any dismissal order.

The Parties are further placed on notice that pursuant to Local Rule 72.3:

Any party may object to a magistrate judge's proposed findings, recommendations or report addressing a motion or matter described in 28 U.S.C. § 636 (b)(1)(B) or making a recommendation for the disposition of a prisoner case or a habeas corpus petition within fourteen (14) days after being served with a copy thereof. Such party shall file with the clerk of court, and serve on the magistrate judge and all parties, written objections which shall specifically identify the portions of the proposed findings, recommendations or report to which objection is made and the basis for such objections. The briefing requirements set forth in Local Rule 72.2 shall apply. A judge shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made and may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. The judge, however, need conduct a new hearing only in his or her discretion or where required by law, and may consider the record developed before the magistrate judge, making his or her own determination on the basis of that record. The judge may also receive further evidence, recall witnesses or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.

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