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Palmer v. District Attorney's Office of Allegheny County

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 14, 2017

JERMAINE PALMER, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE OF ALLEGHENY COUNTY, Defendant. ECF No. 43

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          LISA PUPO LENIHAN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This is a pro se civil rights action filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by Jermaine Palmer (“Plaintiff”) claiming that his rights to due process and access to the court have been violated and seeking, among other things, an injunction granting him access to physical evidence in his state court criminal case, which Plaintiff claims may exonerate him of his conviction if the evidence is subjected to DNA testing. Plaintiff names as Defendant the District Attorney's Office of Allegheny County, which has denied his request for the evidence. Now pending before the Court is a Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction and for Failure to State a Claim (ECF No. 43), to which Plaintiff has responded in opposition (ECF Nos. 50, 51). The parties subsequently filed numerous replies and responses thereto. (ECF Nos. 52, 54, 58, 60, 61.) For the reasons that follow the Motion will be granted.

         I. Standard of Review

         The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit aptly summarized the standard to be applied in deciding motions to dismiss filed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6):

Under the “notice pleading” standard embodied in Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a plaintiff must come forward with “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” As explicated in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009), a claimant must state a “plausible” claim for relief, and “[a] claim has facial plausibility when the pleaded factual content allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Although “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, ” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007), a plaintiff “need only put forth allegations that raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element.” Fowler, 578 F.3d at 213 (quotation marks and citations omitted); see also Covington v. Int'l Ass'n of Approved Basketball Officials, 710 F.3d 114, 117-18 (3d Cir. 2013).

Thompson v. Real Estate Mortg. Network, 748 F.3d 142, 147 (3d Cir. 2014).

         Also, when considering pro se pleadings, a court must employ less stringent standards than when judging the work product of an attorney. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972). When presented with a pro se complaint, the court should construe the complaint liberally and draw fair inferences from what is not alleged as well as from what is alleged. Dluhos v. Strasberg, 321 F.3d 365, 369 (3d Cir. 2003). In a § 1983 action, the court must “apply the applicable law, irrespective of whether the pro se litigant has mentioned it by name.” Higgins v. Beyer, 293 F.3d 683, 688 (3d Cir. 2002) (quoting Holley v. Dep't of Veteran Affairs, 165 F.3d 244, 247-48 (3d Cir. 1999)). See also Nami v. Fauver, 82 F.3d 63, 65 (3d Cir. 1996) (“Since this is a § 1983 action, the [pro se] plaintiffs are entitled to relief if their complaint sufficiently alleges deprivation of any right secured by the Constitution.”) (quoting Higgins, 293 F.3d at 688). Notwithstanding this liberality, pro se litigants are not relieved of their obligation to allege sufficient facts to support a cognizable legal claim. See, e.g., Taylor v. Books A Million, Inc., 296 F.3d 376, 378 (5th Cir. 2002); Riddle v. Mondragon, 83 F.3d 1197, 2102 (10th Cir. 1996).

         II. Allegations and Relevant Facts of Public Record

         Plaintiff's Amended Complaint (ECF No. 33) alleges the following facts. On June 18, 1993, the body of Marcia Williams (“Ms. Williams” and “victim”) was found in a wooded area in Allegheny County (“Allegheny County Murder”). Id., ¶ 18. On June 1, 1994, Plaintiff was convicted in a non-jury trial of third degree murder in the death of Ms. Williams (“Allegheny County Conviction”) and sentenced on July 25, 1994 to ten (10) to twenty (20) years of imprisonment.[1] Id., ¶ 36.

         The prosecution's key witness was Benjamin Williams, who had led investigators to where Ms. Williams' body was buried and had testified that Plaintiff told him he had strangled Ms. Williams and then forced him at gunpoint to help bury Ms. Williams' body.[2] Id., ¶ 37. Police investigators also collected various pieces of physical evidence based on Benjamin Williams' statements, including hair samples from Plaintiff, clothing and fingernail clippings from the victim, an earring, the quilt used to wrap the victim's body, and a carpet sample from Plaintiff's vehicle from which hair samples were collected. Id., ¶ 23. The evidence was submitted to Criminalist Dorothy J. Menges of the Allegheny County Department of Laboratories Forensic Science Section (“Crime Lab”) for microscopic hair analysis and serology testing. Id. The Crime Lab Report indicated that none of the genetic material collected from the evidence matched the specimens provided by Plaintiff.[3] Id., ¶ 24. Plaintiff did not introduce the test results at his trial, nor did he list Menges as a potential witness because the prosecutor stated that he did not intend to call her as a witness. Id., ¶¶ 25-26.

         The technology for advanced DNA testing was not available at the time of Plaintiff's trial. Id., ¶ 85. Plaintiff filed his first motion for DNA testing pursuant to Pennsylvania's postconviction DNA testing statute, 42 Pa. C.S.A. § 9543.1[4] on January 20, 2005. Id., ¶ 4. Plaintiff sought DNA testing of the victim's clothing, the quilt in which she was wrapped, the carpet from his vehicle, and the items found in the vehicle at the time of his arrest, and he alleged that the absence of his DNA on these items would make a prima facie case that demonstrated his innocence. Id., ¶ 84. The PCRA court denied the petition on April 22, 2005, finding no “reasonable probability” that DNA testing would produce exculpatory evidence. The court's order was affirmed on appeal by the Superior Court on May 18, 2006, with the court finding that the absence of Plaintiff's DNA on the items would not demonstrate a prima facie case of innocence as required by Pennsylvania's postconviction DNA testing statute, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9543.1(d)(2)(i). (ECF No. 33-1.)

         Plaintiff filed a second motion for DNA testing on June 13, 2013, requesting DNA testing for the victim's fingernail clippings, earrings, clothing, hair follicles recovered from the vehicle, and any and all linen recovered from the Sleepy Hollow motel. SeeCom. v. Palmer, No. 1640 WDA 2013, 2014 WL 10677160 (Pa. Super. Ct. Sept. 22, 2014). On September 13, 2013, the PCRA court denied the motion concluding that there was no reasonable possibility that DNA testing could prove his actual innocence and that exceptional circumstances did not warrant the Commonwealth's disclosure of the registration records for the Sleepy Hollow motel. (ECF No. 33-3.) On September 22, 2014, the Superior Court dismissed the appeal because Plaintiff had already completed his twenty year sentence for third degree murder and therefore did not meet the PCRA's eligibility requirements for DNA testing. (ECF No. 33-4.)

         Plaintiff also made two separate requests to the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office for access to the evidence in order to conduct DNA testing, once on December 10, 2004, and once on November 8, 2005. (ECF No. 33-25.) It is unknown when his first request was denied, but his second request was denied on November 16, 2005. Id.

         Plaintiff initiated this action by the filing a Motion for Leave to Proceed in forma pauperis that is dated April 29, 2016.[5] (ECF No. 1.) After his request to proceed in forma pauperis was granted, (ECF No. 2), and Plaintiff paid his initial partial filing fee, (ECF No. 5), his Complaint was docket on May 24, 2016, (ECF No. 7). He subsequently filed an Amended Complaint on August 23, 2016. (ECF No. 33.)

         III. Discussion

         A. Access to Evidence for DNA Testing

         Plaintiff states that he is seeking access to “all of the evidence listed in the Crime Lab Report, as well as the photographs taken of the motel room and the crime scene where Ms. Williams's body was discovered.” (ECF No. 33, ¶ 56.) He also seeks “physical evidence obtained from motel room #24 of the Sleepy Hollow motel and the results of any prior forensic testing of the evidence not mentioned in the Crime Lab Report.” Id. As to Plaintiff's claims against Defendant stemming from the denial of access to this evidence for DNA testing, Defendant maintains that this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to consider the claims, and, to the extent that it does not, Plaintiff's claims are time-barred, and, in the alternative, fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Each of these arguments will be addressed herein.

         1. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         First, Defendant argues that this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.[6] The Rooker-Feldman doctrine provides that federal district courts lack subject matter jurisdiction to sit in direct review of state court decisions. SeeExxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 284 (2005). It precludes a federal action if the relief requested in the federal action effectively would reverse the state decision or void its ruling. FOCUS v. Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, 75 F.3d 834, 840 (3d Cir. 1996). “[T]here are four requirements that must be met for the Rooker-Feldman doctrine to apply: (1) the federal plaintiff lost in state court; (2) the plaintiff ‘complain[s] of injuries caused by [the] state-court judgments'; (3) those judgments were rendered before the federal suit was filed; and (4) the plaintiff is inviting the district court to review and reject the state judgments.” Great W. Mining and Mineral Co. v. Fox Rothschild LLP, 615 F.3d 159, 166 (3d Cir. 2010) (alterations in original) (quoting Exxon Mobil Corp., 544 U.S. at 284).

         In response to Defendant's argument Plaintiff cites to the United States Supreme Court's decision in Skinner v. Switzer, 131 S.Ct. 1289 (2011). In Skinner, a state prisoner filed a federal civil rights action under § 1983, naming the district attorney as the defendant and alleging that the defendant had custody of untested biological evidence Skinner wanted to have tested for DNA purposes. The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim and reasoned that Skinner needed to pursue any postconviction requests for DNA evidence in a habeas corpus action. 2010 WL 273143 (N.D. Tex. Jan. 20, 2010). The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. 363 F.App'x 302 (5th Cir. 2010). Reversing, the Supreme Court concluded that Skinner's complaint stated a cognizable claim for relief and that he could proceed in a § 1983 action against the defendant where he challenged the constitutionality of a state statute on its face. 131 S.Ct. at 1298. In so ruling, the Court specifically addressed the applicability of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine and reiterated that “a state-court decision is not reviewable by lower federal courts, but a statute or rule governing the decision may be challenged in a federal action.” Id. Skinner did not challenge the adverse decisions themselves; instead, he targeted as unconstitutional the Texas statute they authoritatively construed. Id. Thus, the Supreme Court held that Rooker-Feldman did not remove subject-matter jurisdiction over Skinner's federal suit. Id.

         Plaintiff argues that, like Skinner, he is not challenging the adverse decisions by the Pennsylvania state courts, but rather Pennsylvania's postconviction DNA testing statute “as applied” to him. (ECF No. 33, ¶¶ 84-93.) The problem with Plaintiff's argument, however, is that he does not explain how, in denying his motions filed under the statute, the state courts erroneously applied and interpreted Pennsylvania's procedures. His “as applied” procedural due process claim is nothing more than an attack on the state court's correct application of Pennsylvania's postconviction DNA testing statute to the facts of his case, and notably, he does not make a comprehensible independent challenge to the constitutionality of that statute or its procedures for access to DNA testing. Thus, his claim is unlike the claim presented in Skinner, where the Supreme Court held that the existence of a state court judgment interpreting or relying upon a statute does not bar a federal court from entertaining an independent challenge to the constitutionality of that statute. 131 S.Ct. at 1298. Therefore, with the exception of one possible challenge that the Court has liberally construed from his complaint, and which will be discussed infra, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars his attack on the state court's judgment denying him access to DNA testing.[7] Nevertheless, to the extent that this Court does have subject matter jurisdiction, Plaintiff's claims are discussed in more detail below.

         2. Limitations Period for Actions under 42 U.S.C. § 1983

         Defendant argues that Plaintiff's claims are barred by the statute of limitations. In this regard, Plaintiff seeks recovery against Defendant under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The limitations period for civil actions brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is determined by state law. Under Pennsylvania law, the applicable statute of limitations period for civil rights actions asserted under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is two years. See42 Pa. C.S. § 5524. The date when a civil rights action accrues (begins to run), however, is a matter of federal law. Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384, 388 (2007). A claim accrues when the plaintiff becomes aware, or should have become aware, of both the fact and injury and its causal connection to the defendant. SeeDelaware State College v. Ricks, 449 U.S. 250, 258 (1980) (it is the wrongful act that triggers the start of the statute of limitations period); Keystone Ins. Co. v. Houghton, 863 F.2d 1125, 1127 (3d Cir. 1988) (a federal cause of action accrues when the plaintiff is aware, or should be aware, of the existence of and source of injury, not when the potential claimant knows or should know that the injury constitutes a legal wrong).

         Here, Plaintiff is asserting that his civil rights were violated by Pennsylvania's postconviction procedures in denying his PCRA petition for DNA testing. Almost every court that has considered this issue has ruled that the statute of limitations on section 1983 claims based on the denial of right to access modern DNA testing begins to run at the end of the state litigation in which an inmate unsuccessfully sought access to such testing. See, e.g., Van Povck v. McCollurn, 646 F.3d 865 (11th Cir. 2011) (holding that statute of limitations on section 1983 claim based on denial of right to access modern DNA testing did not begin when such DNA testing became widely available but only at the end of state litigation in which inmate unsuccessfully sought access to such testing); Savory v. Lyons, 469 F.3d 667 (7th Cir. 2006) (holding that state prisoner's § 1983 claim seeking post-conviction access to physical evidence for the purpose of DNA testing accrued, for limitations purposes, on the date that the state court denied his request for DNA testing under state law; on that date, prisoner became aware of his alleged injury); Mixon v. Sedita, 757 F.Supp.2d 229 (W.D.N.Y. 2010); Moore v. Lockyer, Civ. No. 04-1952, 2005 WL 2334350, at *5-6 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 23, 2005). Some courts, however, have found that the statute of limitations for such claims starts when the plaintiff receives a letter from the District Attorney's Office denying his request to access evidence for DNA testing. See ...


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