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McKinney v. Lanigan

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

February 1, 2019

IVAN McKINNEY, Plaintiff,
GARY LANIGAN et al., Defendants.




         Plaintiff, Ivan 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, as well as state tort claims. (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. 2 & 3.) The Court subsequently denied a second application to proceed in forma pauperis, as it was also incomplete. (ECF Nos. 6-8.) McKinney thereafter submitted a third in forma pauperis application, which was granted, and the action was reopened. (ECF Nos. 9 & 10.) Also before the Court is a motion by McKinney for appointment of pro bono counsel. (ECF No. 12.)


         The Court must now review the complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e) and 28 U.S.C. § 1915A 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 entirely from his transportation by van between corrections facilities on November 10, 2015. (See ECF No. 1.) McKinney alleges that corrections officers subjected him, as well as other prisoners in the van, to a lack of ventilation, denied his requests to use the restroom despite having been in the van for hours, and gave him a “rough ride, ” by erratically maneuvering the van while did not have a seatbelt. (See Id. at ECF pp. 6-15.) McKinney alleges that the corrections officers directly involved, as well as Gary Lanigan, then the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections, and a John Doe supervisory defendant, should be held liable in their individual and official capacities. (Id. at ECF pp. 2-17.)

         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).

         “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 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 § 1983 and tort claims appear to be untimely from the face of the Complaint. He alleges that all underlying acts and harm occurred on November 10, 2015, when he was transported between facilities by van. (See ECF No. 1.) Thus, the two-year limitations period for his claims ended as of November 10, 2017. The Complaint was received by the Clerk's Office over five months after that, on April 23, 2018, though it included a cover letter dated April 17, 2018. (See ECF No. 1 at 1.) 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, April 17, 2018. Nonetheless, the Complaint is still facially untimely.

         In his cover letter, however, McKinney asserts that he originally sent his Complaint on March 19, 2017. (See ECF No. 1 at 1.) That letter reads, “I am resubmitting this complaint because I never heard back from the Court. I initially filed this complaint 03-19-17[1] by Postage Remit. I have had a lot of problems with legal mail here and may have gotten lost [sic].” (Id.)

         McKinney's claim that he originally mailed his Complaint on March 19, 2017, but that it was never docketed and may have been lost, 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. Conroy, 680 Fed.Appx. 140 (3d Cir. 2017); Coudriet v. Vardaro, 545 Fed.Appx. 99, 102 n.2 (3d Cir. 2013); Paluch v. Sec'y Pa. Dep't of Corr., 442 Fed.Appx. 690, 693 (3d Cir. 2011); Terrell v. Benfer, 429 Fed.Appx. 74, 75 n.1 (3d Cir. 2011); Spencer v. Beard, 351 Fed.Appx. 589, 590 (3d Cir. 2009).

         McKinney's assertions here are very different from those considered in a typical prison mailbox case. This is not a situation where a prisoner placed a document in the mail shortly before a deadline and the court received that document a few days after that deadline. Instead, McKinney claims that he originally mailed his complaint in March 2017, but that it was never docketed and that, after more than a year had elapsed, he mailed another copy of the complaint. It appears unlikely that the Houston Court intended the prison mailbox rule to apply in such a distinct context, but there is support in some courts for the theory that a document may be treated as filed on the date it was delivered to prison authorities even if it is never docketed by the Court. See Ray v. Clements, 700 F.3d 993, 1002-13 (7th Cir. 2012); Stoot v. Cain, 570 F.3d 669 (5th Cir. 2009); Allen v. Culliver, 471 F.3d 1196 (11th Cir. 2006); Huizar v. Carey, 273 F.3d 1220 (9th Cir. 2001); see also Nichols v. Coleman, Civ. A. No. 08-cv-2445, 2010 WL 1053094, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 17, 2010). Each of these cases applied the prison mailbox rule to potentially toll the AEDPA limitations period when a prisoner claimed to have commenced a state PCR proceeding, but the state court had never received the pleading. See Ray, 700 F.3d at 1002-13; Stoot, 570 F.3d at 669-72; Allen, 471 F.3d at 1197-99; Huizar, 273 F.3d at 1222-24; Nichols, 2010 WL 1053094 at *3.

         Without the benefit of the prison mailbox rule, there remains some possibility that McKinney's complaint could also be deemed timely by the application of the doctrine of equitable ...

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