UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT EASTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
August 26, 1985
TIMOTHY WILLIAMS, Plaintiff, against THOMAS ALLEN and JOSEPH SOVIERO, Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: GLASSER
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
GLASSER, United States District Judge:
This is an action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in which plaintiff, a prisoner, alleges violations of his civil rights by defendant Thomas Allen, a member of the Nassau County Police Department, and Defendant Joseph Soviero, an attorney, in connection with plaintiff's prosecution for murder in the Supreme Court, Nassau County, in 1980-81.
Specifically, plaintiff alleges in his amended complaint that defendant Allen used excessive force to coerce him into confessing to the murder charge, and that defendant Soviero, who was appointed by the Court to represent plaintiff, failed to do so in a competent manner. Plaintiff seeks an award of damages as well as attorneys' fees, costs and interest.
Defendant Allen has moved to dismiss the complaint against him for failure to commence this action within the applicable limitations period, failure to file a notice of claim and failure to state a claim. For the reasons set forth below, defendant Allen's motion is denied in its entirety.
The relevant facts with respect to defendant Allen are as follows. On April 20, 1980 plaintiff was arrested and allegedly beaten by defendant Allen. See Amended Complaint PP 8-25. Plaintiff was subsequently convicted and sentenced, and filed this action pro se on June 8, 1981, some fourteen months after his arrest. The plaintiff's original complaint was sixteen pages long and detailed his claims in a narrative manner. Leave to prosecute this action in forma pauperis was granted, along with a direction that process be issued to the United States Marshal for service upon the defendants, on September 2, 1981 by Judge Mishler. The Marshal attempted service on Allen by serving the Office of the Nassau County District Attorney on September 21, 1981.
On October 9, 1981, the Nassau County Attorney moved to dismiss on behalf of defendant Allen (and another former defendant) for lack of personal jurisdiction or failure to state a claim, or, in the alternative, for a more definite statement. Shortly thereafter, plaintiff requested appointment of counsel. The Clerk of the Court was directed to appoint counsel on December 6, 1982,
and present counsel for plaintiff accepted appointment and filed a notice of appearance on May 16, 1983.
Neither counsel for plaintiff nor counsel for defendants prodded this action along on the court calendar, and the outstanding motion to dismiss filed in October 1981 was not heard until October 12, 1984. Counsel for Allen did not appear for oral argument of that motion; however, Allen's motion to dismiss for improper service was granted, with leave to plaintiff to serve Allen properly within thirty days. Following some confusion as to the date by which plaintiff was to re-serve Allen,
plaintiff was granted an additional twenty days during which he could personally serve Allen with a summons and an amended complaint at the conclusion of a hearing conducted on April 12, 1985. Allen was personally served with process within the twenty-day period, on May 1, 1985, at 1490 Franklin Avenue in Garden City, the same address where Allen was improperly served in September 1981.
1. Statute of Limitations
The applicable statute of limitations in an action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is the state limitations period for personal injury actions. Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 105 S. Ct. 1938, 1947-48, 85 L. Ed. 2d 254 (1985). In New York, that period is three years. C.P.L.R. § 214. Rodrigues v. Village of Larchmont, 608 F. Supp. 467, 477 (S.DN.Y. 1985). A federal action is commenced upon the filing of the complaint, Fed. R. Civ. P. 3, as compared to an action brought in a New York state court, where the limitations period is tolled only after the defendant is served with process or otherwise notified of the filing of the summons and complaint. See C.P.L.R. § 203. Because this action was commenced only fourteen months after April 20, 1980, when the claim arose, it was timely filed.
Although this action was commenced in a timely manner, it is true that defendant Allen was served some 3 1/2 years after the filing of the complaint. Pursuant to Rule 4(j) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure,
the claim against Allen could be dismissed on that basis alone. That rule, however, became effective on February 26, 1983. Prior to that time there was no fixed period during which the summons had to be served following the filing of a complaint; rather, a flexible due diligence standard was applied. Montalbano v. Easco Hand Tools, Inc., 766 F.2d 737, 740 n.6 (2d Cir. 1985), (citing Siegel, Practice Commentaries U.S.C.A. Rule 4, at 54 (West Supp. 1985)).
Under either the Rule 4(j) or flexible due diligence standard, I decline to dismiss the complaint against Allen in this action. When service was first attempted upon Allen, the incarcerated pro se plaintiff depended solely upon the United States Marshal to effect service. Under such circumstances, dismissal is inappropriate. Korkala v. National Security Agency, 107 F.R.D. 229, slip op. at 3 (E.D.N.Y. 1985) (Glasser, J.) (where failure to serve is solely the fault of the Marshal, plaintiff has good cause for failure to serve defendants in a timely manner); Davis v. Krauss, 478 F. Supp. 823, 826 (E.D.N.Y. 1979) (where Marshal served defendants three months after statute of limitations had run, complaint would not be dismissed) (pre-Rule 4(j)). In addition, the time to comply with Rule 4(j) may be extended pursuant to Rule 6(b). 4 C. Wright, A. Miller & M. Kane, Federal Practice & Procedure § 1138 (Supp. 1985); see also Arroyo v. Wheat, 102 F.R.D. 516 (D. Nev. 1984). In effect, by granting plaintiff additional time to re-serve Allen on October 12, 1984 and then on April 12, 1985, I granted plaintiff an extension of the time permitted under Rule 4(j) pursuant to Rule 6(b). Because the summons and amended complaint were properly served upon Allen within 20 days of April 12, 1985, I decline to dismiss the amended complaint as untimely served.
2. Notice of Claim
Plaintiff's failure to file a timely notice of claim with respect to his claims against defendant Allen, pursuant to N.Y. Gen. Mun Law § 50(e),
presents a more difficult problem. While Allen contends that this error by the then pro se plaintiff bars the claim against him, plaintiff urges that a notice of claim requirement is inapplicable in federal § 1983 actions brought in this Circuit. Certainly the plaintiff's position was correct until at least 1983. See, e.g., Brandon v. Board of Education, 635 F.2d 971, 973-74 n.2 (2d Cir. 1980), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 1123, 71 L. Ed. 2d 109, 102 S. Ct. 970 (1981); Davis v. Krauss, supra, 478 F. Supp. at 825. "If applied, such a notice of claim provision would substantially interfere with the exercise of an important federal right." Id. (citations omitted). In 1983, however, the New York Court of Appeals decided the case of Mills v. County of Monroe, 59 N.Y.2d 307, 451 N.E.2d 456, 464 N.Y.S.2d 709, cert. denied, 464 U.S. 1018, 104 S. Ct. 551, 78 L. Ed. 2d 725 (1983). Acknowledging that the federal district courts sitting in New York have not applied state notice of claim statutes to actions brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 or § 1983, 464 N.Y.S.2d at 710, the Mills court held that a plaintiff's failure to file a timely notice of claim in a § 1981 suit was fatal to the maintenance of her action against the municipality. The court reasoned:
[T]he flexibility with which the timeliness requirement of the notice statute may be applied and the existence of a judicially created exception to the notice requirement indicate that the statute causes no undue inhibition to the bringing of civil rights actions. In the area of civil rights, this court has recognized an important exception to the notice requirement. In Union Free School Dist. No. 6 of Towns of Islip & Smithtown v. New York State Human Rights Appeal Bd., 35 N.Y.2d 371, 380, 362 N.Y.S.2d 139, 320 N.E.2d 859, it held that notice of claim requirements do not apply to actions brought "to vindicate a public interest." All actions brought to enforce civil rights can be said to be in the public interest. . . . But, actions that are brought to protect an important right, which seek relief for a similarly situated class of the public, and whose resolution would directly affect the rights of that class or group are deserving of special treatment. The interests in their resolution on the merits override the State's interest in receiving timely notice before commencement of an action. . . .
Even if a civil rights action seeks to enforce only the private or personal rights of the plaintiff . . . the statute itself permits relief from the notice requirement through an application to the court to serve late notice (see General Mumcipal Law, § 50-e, subd. 5). Although the notice requirement relevant to this action provided generally that a plaintiff must file notice within 90 days after the claim arises (see County Law § 52; General Municipal Law, § 50-e, subd. 1, par.[a]), "[u]pon application the court, in its discretion, may extend the time to serve a notice of claim," so long as the extension doesn't exceed the time limit for commencement of the action (General Municipal Law, § 50-e, subd. 5). The court, in deciding whether to grant leave, will consider various factors, including when the governmental subdivision had acquired knowledge of the relevant facts and whether the delay had caused the defendant substantial prejudice in maintaining its defense (id.). For these reasons, application of the relevant notice precision to actions brought under the Federal civil rights laws cannot be said to offend the Federal policy underlying those laws.
59 N.Y.2d at 311-12, 464 N.Y.S.2d at 711 (citations omitted). The Mills court reasoned further that due to the availability, albeit limited, of a waiver of the notice of claim requirement, discussed in the portion of Mills quoted supra, of the ability to file a late notice of claim,
"application of the relevant notice provision to actions brought under the Federal civil rights laws cannot be said to offend the Federal policy underlying those laws." Id. Finding that the plaintiff's complaint referred to conduct that related only to her and could not be characterized as an attempt to vindicate a public interest, the Mills court determined that the plaintiff was ineligible for a complete waiver of the notice of claim requirement and affirmed the Appellate Division's dismissal of the complaint.
If the state court decision in Mills were to be applied to this case, it is clear that this plaintiff would be barred from relief because like the plaintiff in Mills, the plaintiff here complains only of conduct that related to himself and not to the general public interest. The only two published decisions interpreting Mills are also of no help to this plaintiff. In Brown v. United States, 239 U.S. App. D.C. 345, 742 F.2d 1498 (D.C. Cir. 1984), cert. denied sub nom., District of Columbia v. Brown, 471 U.S. 1073, 105 S. Ct. 2153, 85 L. Ed. 2d 509 (1985), the court concurred with the majority of federal courts in holding that state notice of claim provisions should not be borrowed in federal § 1983 actions. Id. at 1509 & n.6. Without commenting upon the propriety of the Mills decision, the Brown court distinguished Mills based on the "unusual flexibility" of New York's notice of claim statute. Id.
In Cardo v. Lakeland Central School District, 592 F. Supp. 765, 772-73 (S.D.N.Y. 1984), however, the court did adopt the Mills approach, thus barring the plaintiff's § 1983 claim against the School District when the plaintiff failed to file a notice of claim until five months after the last day when he had taught at the school involved.
At this time Cardo is the only decision by a federal court interpreting -- and adhering to -- the notice of claim borrowing rule set forth in Mills.
I decline to follow the rationale of Mills and Cardo. It is not incumbent upon a federal court to apply a procedural rule of the forum state when doing so would effectively extinguish an important federal right. See, e.g., Davis v. Krauss, supra. Applying the reasoning of Mills, the plaintiff here would not be subject to the notice of claim requirement at all if he were raising a claim on behalf of a larger group of persons allegedly subject to police brutality in the manner charged in the amended complaint; in such circumstances, his claim would be considered to be "in the public interest." To waive the notice of claim requirement in that situation but bar the individual plaintiff from the possibility of obtaining relief here is exalting the civil rights of the many over that of the individual who, like the formerly pro se prisoner here, is less able to enforce his rights. The Second Circuit has frowned upon such results in the past. See, e.g., Taylor v. Mayone, 626 F.2d 247, 253 (2d Cir. 1980) ("to create different limitations periods for two similarly situated classes of defendants would create a distinction without a difference, and would engender unnecessary confusion for litigants and judges alike.") (quoting Quinn v. Syracuse Model Neighborhood Corp., 613 F.2d 438, 449 (2d Cir. 1980));
see also Altaire Builders, Inc. v. Village of Horseheads, 551 F. Supp. 1066 (W.D.N.Y. 1982).
Moreover, this conclusion appears consistent with the post-Mills, post-Cardo decision of the Supreme Court in Wilson v. Garcia, supra, where the Court was concerned with establishing some degree of uniformity in § 1983 actions:
If the choice of the statute of limitations were to depend upon the particular facts or the precise legal theory of each claim, counsel could almost always argue, with considerable force, that two or more periods of limitations should apply to each § 1983 claim. Moreover, under such an approach different statutes of limitations would be applied to various § 1983 claims arising in the same State, and multiple periods of limitations would often apply to the same case. There is no reason to believe that Congress would have sanctioned this interpretation of its statute.
105 S. Ct. at 1946 (footnotes omitted) (emphasis added). Although we are here concerned not with multiple limitations periods in the same manner as was the court in Wilson, we are confronted with the possible application of a highly restrictive notice of claim statute which, albeit somewhat flexible, would likely impinge the enforceability of the substantial constitutional rights of individuals who complain of conduct not referable to the public at large, but solely to themselves.
3. Failure to State a Claim
Defendant Allen also urges that the plaintiff has failed to state a claim under § 1983, or, in the alternative, has moved for a more definite statement. A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim may not be granted "unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 40 L. Ed. 2d 90, 94 S. Ct. 1683 (1974) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 2 L. Ed. 2d 80, 78 S. Ct. 99 (1957)). This Circuit has directed that this requirement should be strictly applied to a claim brought under the Civil Rights Act. Escalera v. New York City Housing Authority, 425 F.2d 853, 857 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 400 U.S. 853, 27 L. Ed. 2d 91, 91 S. Ct. 54 (1970). To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege that the defendant, while acting under color of state law, acted or failed to act in such a manner that caused plaintiff to be deprived of a right or rights guaranteed him under the United States Constitution or by federal statute. Without detailing the allegations of the amended complaint, it is sufficient to state that plaintiff has alleged these elements.
In addition, I note that the amended complaint clearly states the date, place and circumstances of plaintiff's claim against Allen. A motion for a more definite statement "is proper only when the pleading to which it is addressed is so vague that it cannot be responded to" and "the only information obtainable [by means of such a motion] is that which is necessary to frame a responsive pleading." 5 C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 1377 at 748 (1969). While defendant Allen briefly contends in Point III of his brief that plaintiff's claim against him is vaguely stated, it is more accurate to state that defendant's own argument is vaguely stated.
For the reasons set forth above, defendant Allen's motion to dismiss or for a more definite statement is denied in its entirety.