United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania
July 21, 2014
RICKY MILLER, Plaintiff
KEVIN BRADFORD, et al., Defendants
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
Martin C. Carlson, United States Magistrate Judge.
I. Statement of Facts and of the Case
The plaintiff, Ricky Miller, is an inmate housed in state prison in New Jersey where he is serving a 20 year prison term that was imposed against him in 2006. (Doc. 1, ¶13.) Miller has now filed a pro se complaint with this Court, which names the current and former District Attorneys of Pike County, an Assistant District Attorney and a Deputy Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as defendants. (Id.)
In his complaint, Miller recites that in 2006 he was also charged in Pennsylvania with criminal offenses. (Id., ¶12.) Pursuant to the Interstate Agreement on Detainers, following his sentencing in New Jersey, Miller was brought to Pennsylvania to face these state charges. (Id., ¶¶14-17.) Pre-trial proceedings were then conducted in this case, proceedings which culminated with a nolle prosequi, or dismissal of this case by the state in September 2007. (Id., ¶¶18-23.) Curiously, Miller alleges that he opposed the dismissal of this case, although he does not explain why he resisted this nolle prosequi. (Id.) Miller was then returned to New Jersey to continue service of his sentence in that state in September 2007. (Id., ¶24.)
Years then passed without any further action in this case until five and one-half years after the original nolle prosequi of this case, when Miller alleges that, in September of 2013 he moved to dismiss this state case, which had been dismissed and abandoned by the state many years earlier. This action, like Miller’s earlier decision to oppose the nolle prosequi of his Pennsylvania state case, is not further explained by the plaintiff in his pro se complaint. Another ten months then elapsed before Miller filed this pro se civil complaint against the prosecutors who allegedly brought, and then dismissed, the state case filed against the plaintiff in Pike County some seven years ago. In his complaint, Miller alleged, without further elaboration, that the actions of these defendants violated his Sixth Amendment right to trial, and his Fifth Amendment due process rights. (Id.)
Along with his complaint, Miller has filed a motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis. (Doc. 2.) For the reasons set forth below, we will GRANT the motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis, but recommend that this complaint be dismissed.
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 plaintiffs given leave to proceed in forma pauperis in cases which seek redress against government officials. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii). Specifically, the Court must assess whether a pro se complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, since Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 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). In addition, when reviewing in forma pauperis complaints, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) specifically enjoins us to “dismiss the complaint at any time if the court determines that . . . the action . . . fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. 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 p[arty] 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 ... p[arty] can prove facts that the ... p[arty] 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 party 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 (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 679. 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 678. 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 679.
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 party’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 . . . well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions. Second, a District Court must then determine whether the facts alleged . . . are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a “plausible claim for relief.” In other words, a complaint must do more than allege the p[arty’s] entitlement to relief. A complaint has to “show” such an entitlement with its facts.
Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210-11.
As the court of appeals has observed: “The Supreme Court in Twombly set forth the ‘plausibility’ standard for overcoming a motion to dismiss and refined this approach in Iqbal. The plausibility standard requires the complaint to allege ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’ Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955. A complaint satisfies the plausibility standard when the factual pleadings ‘allow[ ] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.’ Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955). This standard requires showing ‘more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.’ Id. A complaint which pleads facts ‘merely consistent with’ a defendant's liability, [ ] ‘stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of “entitlement of relief.” ’ ” Burtch v. Milberg Factors, Inc., 662 F.3d 212, 220-21 (3d Cir. 2011) cert. denied, 132 S.Ct. 1861, 182 L.Ed.2d 644 (U.S. 2012).
In practice, then, consideration of the legal sufficiency of a complaint entails a three-step analysis: “First, the court must ‘tak[e] note of the elements a p[arty] 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, a well-pleaded complaint must contain more than mere legal labels and conclusions. Rather, a pro se plaintiff’s complaint must 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.
Judged against these legal benchmarks, for the reasons set forth below, Miller’s complaint is fatally flawed in the following respects and should be dismissed.
B. Miller’s Claims Are Time-Barred
At the outset, we note that Miller’s claims against defendants relate to events occurring between 2006 and 2007, seven to eight years ago, and are now time-barred. 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. App’x. 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).
It is well-settled that constitutional tort claims brought under 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)
Here, with respect to all of Miller’s allegations of misconduct by prosecutors in 2006 and 2007, the matters about which Miller complains–the filing and dismissal of this state case–plainly had the degree of permanence which should have alerted Miller to the need to promptly pursue these claims. Yet, it is apparent from the face of Miller’s complaint that he delayed many years beyond the two year statute of limitations before lodging these claims with this court. Therefore, it is evident that these claims are now time-barred by the two-year statute of limitations that applies to civil rights claims and should be dismissed.
C. The State Prosecutors Named in this Complaint Are Immune From Civil Liability
Moreover, Miller’s complaint fails with respect to the various state prosecutors named in that complaint. While the nature of his claims against these prosecutors is sometimes difficult to discern, it appears that the plaintiff is suing the prosecutors, in part, for the very act of prosecuting him. This he may not do. It is well-settled that a criminal defendant may not sue prosecutors for their act of filing charges against him since such conduct is cloaked in immunity from civil liability. The immunity conferred upon prosecutors for the quasi-judicial act of filing and bringing criminal charges is broad and sweeping:
[T]he Supreme Court [has] held that state prosecutors are absolutely immune from liability under § 1983 for actions performed in a quasi-judicial role. This immunity extends to acts that are “intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process, ” such as “initiating a prosecution and ... presenting the State's case.” Court has noted numerous public policy considerations underlying its extension of absolute immunity to prosecutors: [S]uits against prosecutors for initiating and conducting prosecutions “could be expected with some frequency, for a defendant often will transform his resentment at being prosecuted into the ascription of improper and malicious actions to the State's advocate”; lawsuits would divert prosecutors' attention and energy away from their important duty of enforcing the criminal law; prosecutors would have more difficulty than other officials in meeting the standards for qualified immunity; and potential liability “would prevent the vigorous and fearless performance of the prosecutor's duty that is essential to the proper functioning of the criminal justice system.” ... [T]here are other checks on prosecutorial misconduct, including the criminal law and professional discipline.
Yarris v. County of Delaware, 465 F.3d 129, 135 (3d Cir. 2006)(citations omitted).
Thus, “[i]t is well established that prosecutors enjoy absolute immunity from suits under § 1983 for conduct related to the initiation and presentation of the state's case. Imbler, 424 U.S. at 431, 96 S.Ct. 984. The decision whether to . . . pursue a trial is strictly within the discretion of the prosecutor. Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259, 273, 113 S.Ct. 2606, 125 L.Ed.2d 209 (1993); Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257, 92 S.Ct. 495, 30 L.Ed.2d 427 (1971) (plea bargaining is an essential component of our legal system); Brooks v. George County, Miss., 84 F.3d 157, 168 (5th Cir.1996) (decision to enter a motion of nolle prosequi entitled to absolute immunity).” Bresko v. John, 87 F.App'x 800, 802-03 (3d Cir. 2004). Indeed, it has been held that this absolute immunity extends to decisions, like those allegedly made here, to nolle prosequi a criminal case. See e.g., Cady v. Arenac Cnty., 574 F.3d 334, 341 (6th Cir. 2009); Brooks v. George County, 84 F.3d 157, 168 (5th Cir.1996). Such actions “are all prosecutorial activities ‘intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process’ ” Brooks v. George Cnty., Miss., 84 F.3d 157, 168 (5th Cir. 1996), and are, therefore, cloaked in absolute immunity.
Here, we find that Miller’s complaint largely seeks to hold prosecutors personally liable for their act of prosecuting him, and then entering a nolle prosequi of the charges that were pending against him in 2007. Since these officials are immune from personal, individual liability for their actions in bringing, and later dismissing, this criminal case, Miller’s claims against these defendants arising out of their decision to charge him, and later dismiss those charges, should also be dismissed.
D. The Complaint Should be Dismissed Without Prejudice
We recognize that pro se plaintiffs should be afforded an opportunity to amend a complaint before the complaint is dismissed with prejudice, see Fletcher-Hardee Corp. v. Pote Concrete Contractors, 482 F.3d 247, 253 (3d Cir. 2007), unless it is clear that granting further leave to amend would be futile, or result in undue delay. Alston v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229, 235 (3d Cir. 2004). In this case, Miller has not alleged facts that would state a claim upon which relief may be granted, and it appears that he may be unable to do so. Nonetheless, out of an abundance of caution, and in order to preserve the plaintiff’s rights, it is recommended that this matter be dismissed without prejudice to Miller attempting to amend this federal complaint to state a claim upon which relief may be granted in federal court, by including proper allegations that meet the requirements of federal law.
Accordingly, for the foregoing reasons, the plaintiff’s motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis (Doc. 2.) is GRANTED, but IT IS RECOMMENDED that the plaintiff’s complaint be dismissed for the failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, but that the dismissal of this action be without prejudice to any effort by the plaintiff to timely allege facts in an amended complaint which might state a claim upon which relief may be granted, provided that the plaintiff acts within 20 days of any dismissal order.
The plaintiff is 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.