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Sandutch v. Muroski

July 22, 1982

JAMES VINCENT SANDUTCH, APPELLANT
v.
CHESTER B. MUROSKI, PATRICK J. TOOLE, JR., PAUL J. FARRELL, MR. PEARSON, JAMES L. GEIB, ROBERT BRUNOZZI, MATTHEW PARRELL, LUZERNE COUNTY, AND CITY OF HAZLETON, APPELLEES



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

Before: SEITZ, Chief Judge, SLOVITER, Circuit Judge and McCUNE, District Judge*fn*

Opinion OF THE COURT

Per Curiam:

James Vincent Sandutch appeals from the district court's dismissal of his civil rights action. This court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. ยง 1291 (1976).

I.

In 1976, Sandutch was convicted in the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas of arson and murder in connection with the fire-bombing of the home of a county sheriff. At trial, the prosecution introduced the preliminary hearing testimony of an alleged coconspirator James Mastrota, that linked Sandutch to the crimes. After the preliminary hearing but before Sandutch's trial, Mastrota recanted this testimony, stating that his previous statements were made under duress and were not true. The trial court excluded the taped recantation as hearsay at Sandutch's trial, but the Pennsylvania Superior Court found this exclusion to have been reversible error. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur in 1979, but has not yet decided the case.

In September 1980, Sandutch obtained an affidavit in which Mastrota explained the circumstances under which the incriminating statement was obtained. Two weeks later, Sandutch commenced this action, alleging that the named public officials violated and conspired to violate his constitutional rights by obtaining a fraudulent statement from Mastrota and by using that statement in a prosecution against Sandutch. The complaint named nine defendants, only eight of whom were served.

The district court dismissed the claims against the served defendants. The action against five defendants was dismissed because Sandutch had "filed no memoranda of law in opposition to the motions and the extension of time granted Sandutch [had] expired." As to the other three defendants, appellees Farrell, Geib, and Brunozzi, the court held that Sandutch's action was barred by the statute of limitations, and, alternatively, that the case was appropriate for abstention because of the appeal pending in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Sandutch appeals the district court's dismissal of his action.

II.

Because we conclude that the statute of limitations bars Sandutch's action against all defendants, we do not reach the other issues Sandutch raises.

A.

The parties agree that the district court correctly determined the controlling limitations periods by looking to the limitations periods for the analogous state law torts of false arrest and false imprisonment.*fn1 Those periods are, respectively, two years and one year.

The disputed issue is when the cause of action accrued, so as to trigger the running of the limitations period. It is undisputed, however, that Sandutch's claim accrued when he knew or had reason to know of the injury that constitutes the basis of this action. See Cox v. Stanton, 529 F.2d 47, 50 (4th Cir. 1975) (accrual of civil rights action is a question of federal law). See generally Special Project, Time Bars in Specialized Federal Common Law: Federal Rights of Action and State Statutes of Limitations, 65 Cornell L. Rev. 1011, 1092-1094 (1980). The district court held that the action accrued in 1976, when Sandutch was arrested and convicted, and when the allegedly fraudulent statement from Mastrota was obtained. Sandutch initiated this action in 1980.

In essence, Sandutch argues that he neither knew nor had reason to know of his injury until he received Mastrota's affidavit in 1980, and that the district court erred in dismissing his complaint without making a factual finding supported by the record to the contrary. We assume, without deciding, that Sandutch did not know he had a cause of action until 1980. We hold, however, that the record establishes, as a matter of law, that Sandutch had reason to know of the alleged conspiracy to secure false testimony in this case as early as 1976, when he knew of Mastrota's recantation. Sandutch attacked Mastrota's incriminating statement, at both his 1976 trial and on appeal, as fraudulent and obtained by duress. See Commonwealth v. Sandutch, 269 Pa. Super. 481, 482, 410 A.2d 358, 359 (1979), pet. for allowance of appeal granted, Dec. 21, 1979. Although at that time Sandutch may not have known all the facts necessary to establish that the defendants conspired to ...


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