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Delaware Federal Court Examines Tolling Limitations for Civil Claims by Inmates

James St. Louis v. Karl Haller, et al.
Case No. 16-356-SLR (United States District Court for the District of Delaware, October 17, 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/october/16-356.pdf

James St. Louis v. Karl Haller, et al. involved the United States District Court for the District of Delaware’s screening of an inmate’s civil rights lawsuit against the prosecutor and his defense counsel involved in the inmate’s 2001 criminal trial, pursuant to the screening provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b). The Court concluded that the inmate’s claims were time-barred and that the continuing violation theory did not save the inmate’s stale claims. Thus, the Court dismissed the inmate’s complaint as frivolous.

By way of factual background, Plaintiff James St. Louis (“Plaintiff”), an inmate at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, filed a lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Defendants, defense counsel Karl Haller (“Haller”), public defender Carol Dunn (“Dunn”), and State prosecutor Melanie Withers (“Withers”) (collectively, “Defendants”), conspired to deny him his right to due process during his 2001 criminal trial. On May 1, 2001, after a jury trial, Plaintiff was found guilty of rape in the first degree and sexual abuse of a child. On June 22, 2001, Plaintiff was sentenced to thirty (30) years in prison. Plaintiff appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court on July 19, 2001, which affirmed the decision on May 24, 2002.

Plaintiff’s claims revolved around alleged witness tampering and its impact on his criminal trial. He claimed that “Withers was behind the witness tampering, that Haller was aware there had been witness tampering, but that neither the court nor the jury ever heard allegations or facts that the victim’s testimony was manipulated and coerced.” Plaintiff had asked his counsel to argue prosecutorial misconduct and third-party witness tampering on appeal, but the issues were not addressed. Plaintiff also alleged that: (1) “Haller and Dunn failed to protect his constitutional rights by conspiring with the State prosecutor to ignore the State’s felonious behavior which resulted in government misconduct and impropriety for the jury to return a guilty verdict;” (2) “although [Plaintiff] made a request, Haller failed to raise the issues of conspiracy and government misconduct and improprieties on appeal;” (3) “Haller and Dunn failed to report misconduct and improprieties to the judiciary during trial or through an internal investigation;” (4) “Withers secured a guilty verdict by allowing, instigating, advising, and prompting a third party to manipulate, discuss, and violate a civil contempt order requested by the State to discuss further testimony;” (5) “Haller and Dunn violated [Plaintiff’s] Sixth Amendment rights;” (6) “Haller and Dunn had a duty to protect [Plaintiff] and insure a fair and just trial;” and (7) “Defendants breached their duties by failing to protect [Plaintiff’s] rights and their sworn duties as attorneys.”

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. § 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. § 1915A (actions in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental defendant).

Turning to the facts of the case, the Court noted that the actions complained of by Plaintiff occurred in 2001, and that Plaintiff commenced the lawsuit at issue in 2016.  The Court explained that “for purposes of the statute of limitations, § 1983 claims are characterized as personal injury actions,” and are subject to a two (2)-year limitations period in Delaware. See Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 275 (1983); Johnson v. Cullen, 925 F.Supp. 244, 248 (D. Del. 1996); 10 Del. C. § 8119. The Court further explained that “§ 1983 claims accrue
when the plaintiff knew or should have known of the injury upon which his action is based,” and that claims not “filed within the two (2)-year statute of limitations period are time-barred and must be dismissed.” See Sameric Corp. v. City of Philadelphia, 142 F.3d 582, 599 (3d Cir. 1998); Smith v. State, 2001 WL 845654, at *2 (D. Del. July 24, 2001).

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.” See Benak ex rel. Alliance Premier Growth Fund v. Alliance Capital Mgmt. L.P., 435 F.3d 396, 400 (3d Cir. 2006). The Court explained, however, that “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 Davis v. Gauby, 408 F.App’x 524, 526 (3d Cir. 2010) (quoting Fogle v. Pierson, 435 F.3d 1252, 1258 (10th Cir. 2006)).

Plaintiff attempted to avoid running afoul of the limitations period by citing to Harden v. Straub, 490 U.S. 536 (1989), for the proposition that the statute of limitations is tolled during an inmate’s incarceration, and by alleging that the acts of Defendants may be considered a “continuous wrong” or “continuing harm.” The Court, however, disagreed with both of Plaintiff’s arguments.

First, the Court found that Plaintiff’s reliance on Harden v. Straub was “misplaced.” The Court explained that “the Third Circuit has recognized, as set forth in Harden, that a state’s statute of limitations for personal injury tort claims, and its tolling principles, generally govern § 1983 claims.” See Wadis v. Norristown State Hosp., 617 F.App’x 133 (3d Cir. 2015). The Court noted that, in Hardin, the applicable Michigan statute had a provision that tolled the limitations period during an inmate’s incarceration, whereas Delaware did not have a comparable provision. See Marvel v. Clay, 1995 WL 465322, at *4 (Del. Super. 1995) (“there appears to be no general equitable principle requiring a statute of limitations to be tolled for incarcerated plaintiffs, there is no such statute in Delaware, and incarceration alone is not sufficient to toll the statute”).

The Court was also not persuaded by Plaintiff’s argument that the acts of Defendants may be considered a “continuous wrong” or “continuing harm.” The Court noted that “under a continuing violation theory, if Defendants engaged in a continual course of conduct and Plaintiff’s action is timely as to any act in that course of conduct, Plaintiff may be permitted to litigate violations that are part of the course of conduct.” See Van Heest v. McNeilab, Inc., 624 F.Supp. 891, 896 (D. Del. 1985). The Court explained that a “continuing violation is occasioned by continual unlawful acts, not continual ill effects from an original violation.” See Sandutch v. Muroski, 684 F.2d 252, 254 (3d Cir. 1982).

The Court analyzed Plaintiff’s complaint and found that Plaintiff failed “to assert any affirmative acts of Defendants beyond the acts taken by them during Plaintiff’s 2001 criminal trial and direct appeal (decided by the Delaware Supreme Court on May 24, 2002).” According to the Court, “The actions taken by Defendants as alleged by Plaintiff are discrete and fixed in time,” and “The only thing that appears to be continuing is Plaintiff’s incarceration.” Accordingly, the Court concluded that the continuing violation theory did not save Plaintiff’s claims against Defendants, and that Plaintiff’s claims were time-barred. Therefore, the Court dismissed Plaintiff’s complaint as legally frivolous pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1).


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