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McKinney v. Fitzgerald

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

February 1, 2019

IVAN G. McKINNEY, Plaintiff,
v.
SGT FITZGERALD et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          FREDA L. WOLFSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff, Ivan G. McKinney (“McKinney” or “Plaintiff”), is a state prisoner incarcerated at New Jersey State Prison, in Trenton, New Jersey. He is proceeding pro se with this Complaint asserting violations of his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (See Compl., ECF No. 1.) The Court initially administratively terminated this action, as McKinney's application to proceed in forma pauperis was incomplete. (ECF Nos. 3 & 4.) McKinney thereafter submitted a proper in forma pauperis application, which was granted, and the action was reopened. (ECF Nos. 5 & 6.) Also before the Court is a motion by McKinney for appointment of pro bono counsel. (ECF No. 8.)

         II. SCREENING THE COMPLAINT

         The Court must now review the Complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e), 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, and 42 U.S.C. § 1997e 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 suit. McKinney's claims in this action arise from alleged interactions with corrections officers on March 28, 2015, July 13, 2015, April 3, 2016, and April 5, 2016. (See ECF No. 1.) McKinney alleges that a corrections officer touched him inappropriately during a pat-down search on March 28, 2015 and that, when McKinney complained, other officers subjected him to a retaliatory strip search. (See Id. at ECF pp. 4-5, 6-9.) He alleges that an officer pulled his pants down in the law library on July 13, 2015. (Id. at ECF pp. 9-11.) McKinney further contends that another officer inappropriately touched him during a pat-down search on April 3, 2016. (Id. at ECF pp. 11-12.) He claims that, after he filed a grievance regarding the last incident, several officers retaliated against him on April 5, 2016, by yelling at him and threatening him. (Id. at ECF pp. 13-20.)

         Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Pub. L. 104-134, §§ 801-810, 110 Stat. 1321-66 to 1321-77 (Apr. 26, 1996) (“PLRA”), district courts must review prisoner complaints when the prisoner (1) is proceeding in forma pauperis, see 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B), (2) seeks redress against a governmental employee or entity, see 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, or (3) asserts a claim concerning prison conditions, see 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c). The PLRA directs district courts to sua sponte dismiss claims that are frivolous or malicious, that fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or that seek monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B), 1915A(b); 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c).

         “The legal standard for dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) is the same as that for dismissing a complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).” Schreane v. Seana, 506 Fed.Appx. 120, 122 (3d Cir. 2012); see also Mitchell v. Beard, 492 Fed.Appx. 230, 232 (3d Cir. 2012) (discussing 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c)(1)); Courteau v. United States, 287 Fed.Appx. 159, 162 (3d Cir. 2008) (discussing 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)). That standard is set forth in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), and Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007). To survive the Court's screening for failure to state a claim, the complaint must allege “sufficient factual matter to show that the claim is facially plausible.” Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678; see also Fair Wind Sailing, Inc. v. Dempster, 764 F.3d 303, 308 n.3 (3d Cir. 2014). “A pleading that offers ‘labels and conclusions' or ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

         Pro se pleadings, as always, will be liberally construed. See Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972); Glunk v. Noone, 689 Fed.Appx. 137, 139 (3d Cir. 2017). Nevertheless, “pro se litigants still must allege sufficient facts in their complaints to support a claim.” Mala v. Crown Bay Marina, Inc., 704 F.3d 239, 245 (3d Cir. 2013).

         Here, the Court first assesses the timeliness of McKinney's Complaint. Causes of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 are subject to the same two-year statute of limitations as claims for other personal injuries under New Jersey state law. See Patyrak v. Apgar, 511 Fed.Appx. 193, 195 (3d Cir. 2013) (citing Dique v. N.J. State Police, 603 F.3d 181, 185 (3d Cir. 2010)); Evans v. Gloucester Twp., 124 F.Supp.3d 340, 349 (D.N.J. 2015) (citing Pittman v. Metuchen Police Dep't, 441 Fed.Appx. 826, 828 (3d Cir. 2011)).

         McKinney's claims appear to be untimely from the face of the Complaint. He alleges that the underlying acts and harm occurred on March 28, 2015, July 13, 2015, April 3, 2016, and April 5, 2016. (See ECF No. 1.) Thus, the two-year limitations periods for his claims ended, respectively, on March 28, 2017, July 13, 2017, April 3, 2018, and April 5, 2018. The Complaint was received by the Clerk's Office on August 17, 2018, over four months after the expiration of the latest limitations period, though I note that it included a cover letter dated August 13, 2018. (See ECF No. 1-3.) The Court will give McKinney the benefit of the doubt, as appropriate for a pro se litigant, and assume, under the “mailbox rule, ” see Houston v. Lack, 487 U.S. 266, 270-71 (1988), that he may have given it to prison staff for filing as early as its indicated date, August 13, 2018. Nonetheless, the Complaint is still facially untimely.

         In his cover letter, however, McKinney asserts that he originally sent his Complaint on May 12, 2016. (See ECF No. 1-3.) That letter reads,

I filed this case on 05-12-16 in good faith! I filed this at New Jersey State Prison on unit 4-C in good faith. As-per the prisoner's mailbox rule in Houston v. Lack and other cases, The U.S. Supreme Court said that my mail is filed when I hand it to the officer. I am refiling this action today 08-13-18 in good Faith certified mail. I have enclosed my 05-12-16 Receipt in which I originally filed.

(Id.) McKinney included a copy of an NJSP Postage Remit form which indicates a date of May 12, 2016 for legal mail sent to this district's Newark courthouse. (ECF No. 1-5.)

         McKinney's claim that he originally mailed his Complaint on May 12, 2016, but that it was never docketed, implicates two distinct legal doctrines: the prison mailbox rule and the doctrine of equitable tolling. In Houston v. Lack, 487 U.S. 266, the Supreme Court created the prison mailbox rule, designed for pro se prisoners, whereby a court filing will be deemed filed not when stamped received by the Clerk's office, but instead “at the time [the prisoner] delivered it to the prison authorities for forwarding to the court clerk.” Id. at 275-76. In creating this rule, the Supreme Court noted that the pro se prisoner has no choice but to rely on the prison mail system in order to file documents with the Court; such a litigant has no ability to deliver the document in person or to quickly confirm with the Clerk's Office that the document has been timely received. See Id. The rule is typically employed in cases where the pro se prisoner placed a document in the prison mail system a few days before the relevant deadline and the document was not received by the Court until a few days after the deadline. See, e.g., Houston, 487 U.S. at 268-69; Moody v. ...


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