Abbas v. Dixon

Decision Date28 February 2007
Docket NumberDocket No. 04-6219-pr.
Citation480 F.3d 636
PartiesMohamed ABBAS, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Lt. DIXON, Donald Selsky, Defendants-Appellees, Supt. John Kelly, Supt. Victor Herbert, Sgt. Simons, W. Gee, Officer Poland, Officer P. Koepp, Dept. Gnway, Dept. Conway, D. Matyas, K. Derkovitz, Wyoming County, Gerald L. Stout, Allen Capwell, D. Supkis, Defendants, Eliot Spitzer, Attorney General of the State of New York, Amicus Curiae.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit

Erin G. Holt, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr, LLP (Christopher J. Meade, David A. O'Neil, on the brief), New York, NY, for appellant.

Andrea Oser, Assistant Solicitor General (Martin A. Hotvet, Assistant Solicitor General, of counsel; Eliot Spitzer, Attorney General of the State of New York, on the brief), Albany, NY, for amicus curiae.

Before: LEVAL and STRAUB, Circuit Judges, and UNDERHILL, District Judge.*

UNDERHILL, District Judge.

Plaintiff-Appellant Mohamed Abbas appeals an order entered sua sponte by the United States District Court for the Western District of New York (David G. Larimer, then Chief Judge), dismissing most of his complaint as untimely. Specifically, the District Court held that the three-year statute of limitations for claims made pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 had elapsed before Abbas filed his complaint. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Abbas is a prisoner who was formerly housed at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York. Abbas has alleged that, on four separate occasions, prison officials, and inmates under the prison officials' control, physically assaulted him. The alleged assaults occurred in February 1999, May 1999 and July 1999. Abbas also alleges that, after the attacks, prison officials deprived him of necessary medical treatment. Abbas claims that he sought help from the Wyoming County District Attorney's Office and Sheriff's Office, but that they failed to assist him.

In his complaint, Abbas alleges that, on February 24, 1999, the same day as the first attack, prison officials fabricated several disciplinary charges against him. After a hearing on March 13, 1999, Lieutenant Dixon found Abbas guilty of the trumped-up charges and sentenced Abbas to 180 days in keeplock. Abbas appealed Dixon's decision to Donald Selsky, but Selsky denied Abbas's appeal in May or June 1999. On August 16, 1999, Abbas filed a petition in New York state court pursuant to C.P.L.R. Article 78 in which he challenged the disciplinary proceedings. On February 7, 2000, while the Article 78 petition was still pending, Dixon reconsidered his previous disciplinary ruling and, without conducting a hearing or receiving new evidence, administratively reversed that ruling. On March 29, 2000, in light of Dixon's administrative reversal of the disciplinary ruling, the state court dismissed Abbas's Article 78 petition as moot.

Sometime between October 17, 2002 and November 15, 2002, Abbas filed a complaint1 pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against various officials associated with the Attica Correctional Facility, the Wyoming County District Attorney's Office, and the Wyoming County Sheriff's Office. On November 27, 2002, before the defendants had been served with process, the District Court, acting sua sponte, dismissed as untimely Abbas's claims against all defendants except for Dixon and Selsky. Abbas's claims against Dixon and Selsky then proceeded in district court. Dixon and Selsky subsequently moved to dismiss Abbas's complaint as untimely. The District Court initially denied their motion without prejudice to renewal. Dixon and Selsky subsequently renewed their motion, however, and the District Court ultimately granted the motion.2 Abbas's appeal from the final judgment was initially dismissed for failure to file the required prisoner authorization form, but was later reinstated against all defendants except Dixon and Selsky.

II. Discussion

Because Abbas filed his complaint pro se, we must liberally construe his pleadings, and must interpret his complaint to raise the strongest arguments it suggests. Weixel v. Board of Education of New York, 287 F.3d 138, 146 (2d Cir.2002). The policy of liberally construing pro se submissions is driven by the understanding that "[i]mplicit in the right to self-representation is an obligation on the part of the court to make reasonable allowances to protect pro se litigants from inadvertent forfeiture of important rights because of their lack of legal training." Traguth v. Zuck, 710 F.2d 90, 95 (2d Cir.1983).

A. Did the District Court Err When It Dismissed Abbas's Complaint Sua Sponte?

Because Abbas proceeded in forma pauperis, the District Court predicated its dismissal of Abbas's complaint upon 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) and 1915A(b)(1). Those two statutes provide an efficient means by which a court can screen for and dismiss legally insufficient claims. See Shakur v. Selsky, 391 F.3d 106, 112 (2d Cir.2004). "Section 1915 governs proceedings in forma pauperis, while § 1915A applies to all civil complaints brought by prisoners against governmental officials or entities regardless of whether the prisoner has paid a filing fee." Id. (internal quotations omitted). "Sections 1915 and 1915A recite identical grounds for dismissal, compare 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1) with 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i)-(ii), and we have found both sections applicable to prisoner proceedings in forma pauperis." Id. The screening provision in section 1915A(a) requires courts to "review, before docketing, if feasible or, in any event, as soon as practicable after docketing, a complaint in a civil action in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity." 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The dismissal provision in section 1915A(b) provides that a court "shall identify cognizable claims or dismiss the complaint . . . if the complaint . . . is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted." 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1).

Although section 1915A grants courts the authority to dismiss a complaint with prejudice, nothing in sections 1915 and 1915A alters "[t]he settled rule . . . that a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim 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." McEachin v. McGuinnis, 357 F.3d 197, 200 (2d Cir. 2004) (internal quotations omitted). When reviewing a district court's decision to dismiss a prisoner complaint pursuant to section 1915A, "we accept all of the facts alleged in the complaint as true and draw all inferences in the plaintiff's favor." Larkin v. Savage, 318 F.3d 138, 139 (2d Cir.2003) (per curiam). Such dismissals must accord the inmate an opportunity to amend the complaint "unless the court can rule out any possibility, however unlikely it might be, that an amended complaint would succeed in stating a claim." Gomez v. USAA Federal Savings Bank, 171 F.3d 794, 796 (2d Cir.1999) (per curiam).

Providing a plaintiff with notice and an opportunity to be heard is often necessary to establish the fairness and reliability of a dismissal. Snider v. Melindez, 199 F.3d 108, 113 (2d Cir.1999). Indeed, "courts must take care lest judicial haste in dismissing a complaint in the long run makes waste." Phelps v. Kapnolas, 308 F.3d 180 185 (2d Cir.2002) (per curiam) (internal quotations omitted). Specifically, "[u]ntimely dismissal may prove wasteful of the court's limited resources rather than expeditious, for it often leads to a shuttling of the lawsuit between the district and appellate courts." Lewis v. State of New York, 547 F.2d 4, 6 (2d Cir.1976). "[U]nless it is unmistakably clear that the court lacks jurisdiction, or that the complaint lacks merit or is otherwise defective, we believe it is bad practice for a district court to dismiss without affording a plaintiff the opportunity to be heard in opposition." Mojias v. Johnson, 351 F.3d 606, 610-11 (2d Cir.2003) (quoting Snider, 199 F.3d at 113). Indeed, failure to afford an opportunity to oppose a contemplated sua sponte dismissal may be, "by itself, grounds for reversal." Acosta v. Artuz, 221 F.3d 117, 124 (2d Cir.2000) (quotations omitted).

In this case, the District Court dismissed Abbas's complaint sua sponte. In so doing, the Court looked only to the face of Abbas's complaint and found "no basis to toll the limitations period." Abbas v. Kelly, No. 02-cv-809Sr at 5 (W.D.N.Y. Nov. 27, 2002). The pleading requirements in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, however, do not compel a litigant to anticipate potential affirmative defenses, such as the statute of limitations, and to affirmatively plead facts in avoidance of such defenses. See Jones v. Bock, ___ U.S. ___, 127 S.Ct. 910, 920, 166 L.Ed.2d 798 (2007) (holding that 28 U.S.C. § 1915A does not require prisoners affirmatively to plead that they have exhausted their administrative remedies). Instead, Rule 8 requires a plaintiff to provide only "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." FED. R. CIV. P. 8.

The District Court could not tell from the face of Abbas's complaint whether he might have meritorious tolling arguments. We thus conclude that the District Court should not have dismissed Abbas's complaint on the basis of an anticipated statute-of-limitations defense without granting Abbas notice and an opportunity to be heard.

B. Is it Appropriate to Remand the Case for Further Proceedings?

Notwithstanding the sua sponte dismissal of his complaint against most of the defendants, Abbas received notice and an opportunity to be heard on his tolling arguments in the district court. Abbas's claims against Dixon and Selsky survived sua sponte dismissal and proceeded in district court. Dixon and Selsky moved to dismiss Abbas's claims on statute of...

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