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Federal Court Examines Bivens Actions Seeking Damages From Federal Officers

Enrique Torruella-Torres v. FCI Fort Dix, et al.
Case No. 16-920-SLR (United States District Court for the District of Delaware, November 22, 2016)

by Richard J. Medoff, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at:
http://www.ded.uscourts.gov/sites/default/files/opinions/slr/2016/november/16-920.pdf

Enrique Torruella-Torres v. FCI Fort Dix, et al. involved a civil rights lawsuit filed by an inmate, pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), against the federal prison facility where he was detained and several prison officers, seeking compensatory damages for injuries he sustained after being assaulted by other inmates. The United States District Court for the District of Delaware concluded that the inmate’s complaint was barred by the applicable statute of limitations, because the complaint was filed more than two (2) years after the alleged assault. Thus, the Court dismissed the inmate’s complaint as legally frivolous pursuant to the screening provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) and § 1915A(b).

By way of factual background, in 2006, Plaintiff Enrique Torruella-Torres(“Plaintiff”), an inmate at the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution, cooperated with law enforcement officers in a criminal case against his co-defendant and, as part of the agreement, was given “the warranty of safety” that he would: (1) never have contact with his co-defendant; (2) be protected; and (3) be relocated to another state. In March 2009, Plaintiff traveled to Wilmington, Delaware as part of the relocation process. In 2014, Plaintiff was arrested for an unrelated crime and, on April 4, 2014, his supervised release was revoked and he was sentenced to twenty-four (24) months imprisonment. During his sentencing hearing, Plaintiff requested that he serve his time at Federal Correctional Institution, Fort Dix (“FCI-Fort Dix”) in New Jersey. When Plaintiff made the request, he was unaware that his co-defendant was housed there. Plaintiff was transferred to FCI-Fort Dix on May 6, 2014, and he notified his custody officer of the details of his case, including his cooperation and requirement that he be separated from his co-defendant.

On May 15, 2014, as Plaintiff was returning to his cell, he was assaulted by several inmates, one of whom was his co-defendant. Plaintiff was taken to a hospital for treatment and, upon his return, was placed in the segregated special housing unit. An investigation by prison officers confirmed that Plaintiff had been assaulted by his co-defendant. Plaintiff was told by prison officers that he was responsible for the assault because he made the request to be housed at FCI-Fort Dix. Plaintiff alleged that his Bureau of Prisons file should have contained written details of his cooperation and the requirement that he have no contact with his co­-defendant. On October 3, 2016, Plaintiff filed a civil rights lawsuit against FCI-Fort Dix and several prison officers, pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), seeking compensatory damages for the injuries he sustained as a result of the May 15, 2014 assault.

The Court began its analysis by noting that “a federal court may properly dismiss an action sua sponte under the screening provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) and § 1915A(b) if the action is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.” See Ball v. Famiglio, 726 F.3d 448, 452 (3d Cir. 2013); 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2) (in forma pauperis actions); 28 U.S.C. § 1915A (actions in which prisoner seeks redress from a governmental defendant); 42 U.S.C. § 1997e (prisoner actions brought with respect to prison conditions).

Next, the Court noted that “a ‘Bivens action’ is a commonly used phrase for describing a judicially created remedy allowing individuals to seek damages for unconstitutional conduct by federal officials.” See Banks v. Roberts, 251 F.App’x 774, 775 (3d Cir. 2007). The Court explained that “where a litigant sues federal actors for damages on constitutional grounds, the claim is governed by Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388, 389 (1971),” and that, “in Bivens, the Supreme Court created a federal tort counterpart to the remedy created by 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as it applies to federal officers.” The Court further explained that, “to state a claim under Bivens, a claimant must show: (1) a deprivation of a right secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States; and (2) that the deprivation of the right was caused by an official acting under color of federal law.” See Mahoney v. National Org. for Women, 681 F.Supp. 129, 132 (D. Conn. 1987) (citing Flagg Brothers, Inc. v. Brooks, 436 U.S. 149, 155-56 (1978)).

Regarding the statute of limitations, the Court noted that “in Bivens actions, the rules for determining the limitation period are the same as those used in 42 U.S.C. § 1983 actions.” See Napier v. Thirty or More Unidentified Fed. Agents, 855 F.2d 1080, 1087 (3d Cir. 1988). The Court explained that “a court looks to the general, residual statute of limitations for personal injury actions from the state where the federal court sits unless the state limitations period is inconsistent with the Constitution or federal law,” and that “the court must also account for the state’s tolling rules.” See Lake v. Arnold, 232 F.3d 360, 368 (3d Cir. 2000). According to the Court, because the alleged assault occurred in New Jersey, it appeared that venue “may [have been] more appropriate in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey.” The Court noted, however, that some of the acts complained of by Plaintiff “may have occurred in both Delaware and New Jersey” and, therefore, the Court considered the limitations period for each state.

The Court explained that in both Delaware and New Jersey, Bivens actions are subject to a two (2)-year limitations period, and that “Bivens claims accrue when the plaintiff knew or should have known of the injury upon which his action is based.” See 10 Del. C. § 8119; N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:14-2; McGill v. John Does A-Z, 541 F.App’x 225, 227 (3d Cir. 2013); Sameric Corp. v. City of Philadelphia, 142 F.3d 582, 599 (3d Cir. 1998). The Court noted that “the statute of limitations is an affirmative defense that generally must be raised by the defendant and it is waived if not properly raised,” however, “where the statute of limitations defense is obvious from the face of the complaint and no development of the factual record is required to determine whether dismissal is appropriate, sua sponte dismissal under 28 U.S.C. § 1915 is permissible.” See Benak ex rel. Alliance Premier Growth Fund v. Alliance Capital Mgmt. L.P., 435 F.3d 396, 400 (3d Cir. 2006); Fassett v. Delta Kappa Epsilon, 807 F.2d 1150, 1167 (3d Cir. 1986); Davis v. Gauby, 408 F.App’x 524, 526 (3d Cir. 2010).

Turning to the facts of the case, the Court found that Plaintiff complained “of acts occurring on or before May 15, 2014 and, in particular, the assault he suffered at the hands of his co-defendant as a result of alleged wrongdoing by Defendants.” The Court found that Plaintiff did not file his complaint, however, until approximately two (2) years and five (5) months later, on October 3, 2016. According to the Court, it was “evident from the face of the complaint that his claims [were] barred by the two (2)-year limitations period.” Because Plaintiff’s allegations were time-barred, the Court dismissed Plaintiff’s complaint as legally frivolous.


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