United States District Court, D. New Jersey
May 2, 2005.
PHILLIP WOOD, Plaintiff,
JUDGE THOMAS S. SMITH, et al., Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: FREDA WOLFSON, Magistrate Judge
Plaintiff Phillip Wood ("Wood"), is a civilly committed patient
at the Ann Klein Forensic Center in West Trenton, New Jersey. He
seeks to bring this action in forma pauperis pursuant to
42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his constitutional rights.
Based on his affidavit of indigence, the Court will grant
plaintiff's application to proceed in forma pauperis
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a) and order the Clerk of the Court
to file the Complaint.
At this time, the Court must review the Complaint pursuant to
28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2) to determine whether it should be
dismissed as frivolous or malicious, for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or because it seeks monetary
relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. For the
reasons set forth below, the Court concludes that the Complaint
should be dismissed.
In his Complaint, Wood contends that defendant, Judge Thomas S.
Smith, had Wood involuntarily committed to a state mental
hospital on October 18, 2002, when he did not require such
treatment. (Complaint, ¶ 6). Wood also alleges that defendant Dr.
Beneto Marty testified falsely in the Superior Court of New
Jersey, on December 6, 2002. (Id.).
Wood seeks compensatory money damages in an unspecified amount.
(Compl., ¶ 7).
II. STANDARDS FOR A SUA SPONTE DISMISSAL
In any civil action in which the plaintiff is proceeding in
forma pauperis, the Court is required to identify cognizable
claims and to sua sponte dismiss any claim that is frivolous,
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. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B).
In determining the sufficiency of a pro se complaint, the
Court must be mindful to construe it liberally in favor of the
plaintiff. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972);
United States v. Day, 969 F.2d 39, 42 (3d Cir. 1992). The Court
must "accept as true all of the allegations in the complaint and all
reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and view them
in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Morse v. Lower
Merion School Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). The Court
need not, however, credit a pro se plaintiff's "bald
assertions" or "legal conclusions." Id.
A complaint is frivolous if it "lacks an arguable basis either
in law or in fact." Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325
(1989) (interpreting the predecessor of § 1915(e)(2), the former
§ 1915(d)). The standard for evaluating whether a complaint is
"frivolous" is an objective one. Deutsch v. United States,
67 F.3d 1080, 1086-87 (3d Cir. 1995).
A pro se complaint may be dismissed for failure to state a
claim only if it appears "`beyond doubt that the plaintiff can
prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle
him to relief.'" Haines, 404 U.S. at 521 (quoting Conley v.
Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957)); Milhouse v. Carlson,
652 F.2d 371, 373 (3d Cir. 1981). However, where a complaint can be
remedied by an amendment, a district court may not dismiss the
complaint with prejudice, but must permit the amendment. Denton
v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 34 (1992); Alston v. Parker,
363 F.3d 229 (3d Cir. 2004) (complaint that satisfied notice pleading
requirement that it contain short, plain statement of the claim
but lacked sufficient detail to function as a guide to discovery was not required to be dismissed for failure to state a claim;
district court should permit a curative amendment before
dismissing a complaint, unless an amendment would be futile or
inequitable); Grayson v. Mayview State Hospital, 293 F.3d 103,
108 (3d Cir. 2002) (dismissal pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)); Shane v. Fauver, 213 F.3d 113, 116-17 (3d Cir.
2000) (dismissal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c)(1)); Urrutia
v. Harrisburg County Police Dept., 91 F.3d 451, 453 (3d Cir.
III. SECTION 1983 ACTIONS
Wood brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging
violations of his civil rights guaranteed under the United States
Constitution. Section 1983 provides in relevant part:
Every person who, under color of any statute,
ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State
or Territory . . . subjects, or causes to be
subjected, any citizen of the United States or other
person within the jurisdiction thereof to the
deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities
secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable
to the party injured in an action at law, suit in
equity, or other proper proceeding for redress. . . .
Thus, to state a claim for relief under § 1983, a plaintiff must
allege, first, the violation of a right secured by the
Constitution or laws of the United States and, second, that the
alleged deprivation was committed or caused by a person acting
under color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42
, 48 (1988); Piecknick v. Pennsylvania, 36 F.3d 1250
, 1255-56 (3d
A. Claim Against Judge Smith
As a general rule, judges acting in their judicial capacity are
absolutely immune (in both their individual and official
capacities) from suit for monetary damages under the doctrine of
judicial immunity. See Mireless v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 9
(1991). "Judicial immunity is an immunity from suit, not just
from ultimate assessment of damages." Id., 502 U.S. at 11
(citing Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985)). The
Supreme Court has made clear that
judges of courts of superior or general jurisdiction
are not liable to civil actions for their judicial
acts, even when such acts are in excess of their
jurisdiction, and are alleged to have been done
maliciously or corruptly.
Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349
, 355-56 (1978); see also
Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547
, 554 (1967). Thus, judicial
immunity can be overcome only for actions not taken in a judicial
capacity, id., or for actions taken in a complete absence of
all jurisdiction. Mireless, 502 U.S. at 11-12. Allegations that
actions were undertaken with an improper motive diminishes
neither their character as judicial actions nor the judge's
immunity. See Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219
, 227 (1988). Here, Wood generally alleges that Judge Smith ordered that Wood
be involuntarily committed to a mental hospital despite Wood's
claim that he did not require such treatment. Wood does not
assert that Judge Smith acted beyond the scope of his judicial
authority. Presiding over Wood's commitment proceeding, Judge
Smith would have the judicial authority to order that Wood be
civilly committed after a hearing on the issue. Thus, there is
nothing to indicate that Judge Smith acted beyond the scope of
his authority in involuntarily committing Wood.
Wood also fails to allege that Judge Smith acted in the
complete absence of all jurisdiction. Therefore, Judge Smith is
absolutely immune for all claims asserted by Wood in his
Complaint. The Complaint will be dismissed in its entirety as
against Judge Smith, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(iii).
C. Claim as to Dr. Marty
Next, Wood complains that, on December 6, 2002, Dr. Marty
testified falsely about Wood in court. Wood does not elaborate on
the alleged perjury. However, it appears on the face of the
Complaint that this claim is time-barred.
A court may dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim,
based on a time-bar, where "the time alleged in the statement of
a claim shows that the cause of action has not been brought
within the statute of limitations." Bethel v. Jendoco
Construction Corp., 570 F.2d 1168, 1174 (3d Cir. 1978) (citation omitted). Although the statute of limitations is an affirmative
defense which may be waived by the defendant, it is appropriate
to dismiss sua sponte under § 1915(e)(2) a pro se civil
rights claim whose untimeliness is apparent from the face of the
Complaint. See, e.g., Pino v. Ryan, 49 F.3d 51, 53 (2d Cir.
1995) (holding, under former § 1915(d) in forma pauperis
provisions, that sua sponte dismissal prior to service of an
untimely claim is appropriate since such a claim "is based on an
indisputably meritless legal theory"); Hall v. Geary County Bd.
of County Comm'rs, 12 Fed. Appx. 855 (10th Cir. 2001) (unpub.)
(applying Pino to current § 1915(e)); Rounds v. Baker,
141 F.3d 1170 (8th Cir. 1998) (unpub.) (same); Johnstone v. United
States, 980 F.Supp. 148 (E.D. Pa. 1997) (same).
Civil rights claims are best characterized as personal injury
actions and are governed by the applicable state's statute of
limitations for personal injury actions. See Wilson v.
Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 280 (1985). Accordingly, New Jersey's
two-year limitations period on personal injury actions, N.J.
STAT. ANN. § 2A:14-2, governs plaintiff's claims. See
Montgomery v. DeSimone, 159 F.3d 120, 126 & n. 4 (3d Cir.
1998); Cito v. Bridgewater Township Police Dept., 892 F.2d 23,
25 (3d Cir. 1989).
Here, the statute of limitations began to run, at the latest,
when the defendant purportedly testified falsely against Wood at court on December 6, 2002. See Sameric Corp. of
Delaware v. City of Philadelphia, 142 F.3d 582, 599 (3d Cir.
1998) (a section 1983 cause of action accrues when the plaintiff
knew or should have known of the injury upon which the action is
based). This Complaint was received by the Court on or about
March 9, 2005, and is dated by plaintiff on February 25, 2005,
more than two months after Wood's claim accrued; therefore, any
potential § 1983 claim based on this event is time-barred.
Moreover, Wood has not asserted facts suggesting any basis for
statutory tolling. See, e.g., N.J. STAT. ANN. § 2A:14-21
(detailing tolling because of minority or insanity); N.J.S.A. §
2A 14-22 (detailing tolling because of nonresidency of persons
liable). New Jersey law also permits "equitable tolling" where
"the complainant has been induced or tricked by his adversary's
misconduct into allowing the filing deadline to pass," or where a
plaintiff has "in some extraordinary way" been prevented from
asserting his rights, or where a plaintiff has timely asserted
his rights mistakenly by either defective pleading or in the
wrong forum. See Freeman v. State, 347 N.J. Super. 11, 31
(N.J.Super. App. Div.) (citations omitted), certif. denied,
172 N.J. 178 (2002). "However, absent a showing of intentional
inducement or trickery by a defendant, the doctrine of equitable
tolling should be applied sparingly and only in the rare
situation where it is demanded by sound legal principles as well as the interests
of justice." Id.
When state tolling rules contradict federal law or policy, in
certain limited circumstances, federal courts can turn to federal
tolling doctrine. See Lake v. Arnold, 232 F.3d 360, 370 (3d
Cir. 2000). Under federal law, equitable tolling is appropriate
in three general scenarios:
(1) where a defendant actively misleads a plaintiff
with respect to her cause of action; (2) where the
plaintiff has been prevented from asserting her claim
as a result of other extraordinary circumstances; or
(3) where the plaintiff asserts her claims in a
timely manner but has done so in the wrong forum.
Id. n. 9.
Here, the Complaint alleges no extraordinary circumstances that
would permit equitable tolling under either New Jersey or federal
law. There are no allegations that Wood was unaware of his rights
in 2002, nor are there any allegations that defendants prevented
Wood in any way from timely filing his Complaint. Therefore,
because it is clear on the face of the Complaint that Wood's
false testimony claim against Dr. Marty is time-barred, and no
extraordinary circumstances are alleged to warrant equitable
tolling, the claim will be dismissed with prejudice as untimely.
Moreover, even if the claim was timely, plaintiff fails to
state a cognizable claim against Dr. Marty. Witnesses are
absolutely immune from civil damages based upon their testimony in court. See Briscoe v. LaHue, 460 U.S. 325, 341-46 (1983).
Accordingly, Dr. Marty is immune from liability with respect to
any claims related to his testimony in court.
For the reasons set forth above, the Complaint must be
dismissed in its entirety as against all defendants, with
prejudice, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) and (iii).
An appropriate order follows.
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