Jones v. Preuit & Mauldin

Decision Date21 June 1985
Docket NumberNo. 84-7482,84-7482
Citation763 F.2d 1250
PartiesSamuel JONES, Jr., Plaintiff-Appellant, v. PREUIT & MAULDIN, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

C.V. Stelzenmuller, Thomas, Taliaferro, Forman, Burr & Murray, F.A. Flowers, III, Birmingham Ala., J.G. Speake, Moulton, Ala., for plaintiff-appellant.

T. Michael Putnam, Potts, Young, Blasingame, Suttle & Putnam, Florence, Ala., for defendants-appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama.

Before VANCE and JOHNSON, Circuit Judges, and MORGAN, Senior Circuit Judge.

JOHNSON, Circuit Judge:

On February 24, 1984, Samuel Jones filed suit against Preuit & Mauldin, a partnership engaged in the business of servicing equipment. The complaint alleged that on April 8, 1982, the defendants, acting pursuant to ALA.CODE Sec. 35-11-111 (1975), obtained writs of attachment for three International Harvester cotton pickers belonging to Jones. The sheriff of Lawrence County seized the machines on April 18, 1982, without notice to Jones or a pre-seizure hearing. The attachment also took place prior to judgment in the defendants' underlying state court actions for a debt for repairs to the pickers. Jones claims that such prejudgment attachment procedures deprived him of due process of law in contravention of Fuentes v. Shevin, 407 U.S. 67, 92 S.Ct. 1983, 32 L.Ed.2d 556 (1972), and its progeny. Jones brought this claim under 42 U.S.C.A. Sec. 1983 (West 1981). The defendants moved for dismissal for failure to state a claim and for failure to bring the suit within the statutory time limit. The district court, 586 F.Supp. 1563, granted the motion and rejected the plaintiff's claim that the most relevant state statute was the three-year statute governing suits on attachment bonds, ALA.CODE Sec. 6-6-148 (1975). Instead, the court applied the one-year "catchall" statute of limitations, covering "actions for any injury to the person or rights of another not arising from contract and not specifically enumerated in this section." ALA.CODE Sec. 6-2-39(a)(5) (1975). Since the plaintiff had filed suit 22 months after the attachment, the court dismissed the case.

I. STATEWIDE CHARACTERIZATION OF SECTION 1983 CLAIMS

Because Section 1983 does not contain a specific statute of limitations, 42 U.S.C.A. Sec. 1988 (West 1981) directs courts to select and apply the most appropriate or analogous state statute of limitations. Burnett v. Grattan, --- U.S. ----, 104 S.Ct. 2924, 82 L.Ed.2d 36 (1984); Board of Regents v. Tomanio, 446 U.S. 478, 483, 100 S.Ct. 1790, 1794, 64 L.Ed.2d 440 (1980); Johnson v. Railway Express Agency, Inc., 421 U.S. 454, 462, 95 S.Ct. 1716, 1721, 44 L.Ed.2d 295 (1975). So long as that analogous state provision is not inconsistent with the policies underlying the federal cause of action, Johnson, 421 U.S. at 465, 95 S.Ct. at 1722; Ehlers v. City of Decatur, 614 F.2d 54 (5th Cir.1980), a federal court may treat the state statute of limitations as controlling.

In this Circuit, the choice of an appropriate state statute has proceeded in two steps. First, the court determines the "essential nature" of the claim. Federal law determines the essential nature of the claim, yet federal law resolves question largely by reference to state law. Shaw v. McCorkle, 537 F.2d 1289 (5th Cir.1976). Second, the court decides which statute of limitations a state court would apply if faced with a claim of the same type or class as the Section 1983 claim. Beard v. Stephens, 372 F.2d 685 (5th Cir.1967).

The Supreme Court's recent decision in Wilson v. Garcia, --- U.S. ----, 105 S.Ct. 1938, 85 L.Ed.2d 254 (1985), relieves this court of the difficult task of characterizing the essential nature of Section 1983 claims in varying contexts. 1 The Court in Wilson held first that the characterization of a Section 1983 claim for statute of limitations purposes is a question of federal law. Next, the Court held that a simple and uniform characterization of all Section 1983 claims best fits the statute's remedial purpose because a uniform characterization prevents the "uncertainty and time-consuming litigation" caused when courts predicate their choice of the correct statute of limitations "on an analysis of the particular facts of each claim." 105 S.Ct. at 1945. Hence, federal courts must "select, in each State, the one most appropriate statute of limitations for all Sec. 1983 claims." Id. at 1947.

Finally, the Wilson court held that federal courts hearing claims under Section 1983 should borrow the state limitations statute governing "personal injury" claims rather than a "catchall" limitations period, a limitations statute for damage to property or breach of contract, or a limitations statute governing suits against public officials. The task facing this court, therefore, is to choose the one Alabama limitations statute governing claims for recovery of damages for "personal injury" that federal courts should borrow for purposes of 42 U.S.C.A. Sec. 1983 (West 1981). 2

II. ESSENTIAL NATURE OF SECTION 1983 PERSONAL INJURY CLAIMS

Two Alabama statutes govern the limitations periods for bringing personal injury suits. The six-year statute, ALA.CODE Sec. 6-2-34(1) (1975), governs all actions "for any trespass to person or liberty, such as false imprisonment or assault and battery." The one-year statute, ALA.CODE Sec. 6-2-39(a)(5) (1975), applies to actions "for any injury to the person or rights of another not arising from contract and not specifically enumerated in this section." 3 The choice between these two statutes depends upon whether the wrongful act constitutes a trespass or a trespass on the case: Section 6-2-34(1) governs trespass actions while Section 6-2-39(a)(5) governs trespass on the case. C.O. Osborn Contracting Co. v. Alabama Gas Corp., 273 Ala. 6, 135 So.2d 166 (1961); Smith and Gaston Funeral Directors v. Dean, 262 Ala. 600, 80 So.2d 227 (1955); Pennick v. City of Florala, 529 F.2d 1242 (5th Cir.1976); Beard v. Stephens, 372 F.2d 685 (5th Cir.1967). The choice of the proper and analogous Alabama statute for purposes of Section 1983 claims will depend, then, on whether the "personal injury" that is the essential nature of all Section 1983 claims is more akin to trespass or trespass on the case. This calls for some elaboration on the "essential nature" of Section 1983 claims and is therefore a question of federal law, but one that may be informed by the state law definition of trespass and trespass on the case.

Under Alabama law, trespass involves an intentional act done with force and immediately injurious to the person of another or to property in his or her possession. Trespass on the case would lie when the wrongful act causes harm only indirectly and without an intentional act of force. 4 W.T. Ratliff Co., Inc. v. Henley, 405 So.2d 141 (Ala.1981). Trespass requires intentional or "wanton" causation of injury as opposed to mere negligence, City of Fairhope v. Raddcliffe, 48 Ala.App. 224, 263 So.2d 682 (1972); Cochran v. Hasty, 378 So.2d 1131 (Ala.Civ.App.1979), or an omission of a duty to act. Sasser v. Dixon, 290 Ala. 17, 273 So.2d 182 (1973). Liability based on respondeat superior is framed as trespass on the case. C.O. Osborn Contracting Co. v. Alabama Gas Corp., 273 Ala. 6, 135 So.2d 166 (1961).

The characterization of Section 1983 claims given by the Supreme Court in Wilson resembles an action in trespass rather than trespass on the case. The Court analyzed the legislative history of the Reconstruction Civil Rights Acts and noted that the specific historical catalyst for those statutes was the "campaign of violence and deception in the South, fomented by the Ku Klux Klan, which was denying decent citizens their civil and political rights." 105 S.Ct. at 1947. See generally A. TRELEASE, WHITE TERROR 261-73 (1971) (describing activities of Ku Klux Klan in northern Alabama). The Congress had been especially concerned with murder, whippings, lynchings and banishings; the statutory remedy for violation of constitutional rights was meant to restore peace and justice. 105 S.Ct. 1947; see also Briscoe v. LaHue, 460 U.S. 325, 336-40, 103 S.Ct. 1108, 1116-18, 75 L.Ed.2d 96 (1982). These acts of violence are all "direct" and intentional injuries to the person that would sound in trespass. Cf. Beard v. Stephens, 372 F.2d 685 (5th Cir.1967); Holcombe v. Whitaker, 294 Ala. 430, 318 So.2d 289 (1975); Donald v. Swann, 24 Ala.App 463, 137 So. 178, cert. denied, 223 Ala. 293, 137 So. 181 (1931).

On the other hand, the remedy ultimately chosen by the 42d Congress in Section 1983 did not address only those wrongs that most concerned the legislators. Klan activities epitomized a general inadequacy and inequality in state law enforcement. Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 172-83, 81 S.Ct. 473, 476-82, 5 L.Ed.2d 492 (1961). The "unifying theme" of the statutes, equality of all persons under the law, constituted a goal much broader than the prevention of physical violence. Wilson, 105 S.Ct. at 1947. Nothing in the language or legislative history limits Section 1983 solely to intentional deprivations of constitutional rights. Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 534, 101 S.Ct. 1908, 1912, 68 L.Ed.2d 420 (1981); Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 139-40, 99 S.Ct. 2689, 2692-93, 61 L.Ed.2d 433 (1979).

Obviously, then, some Section 1983 claims will sound in trespass and others in trespass on the case. Some will involve direct injuries, Shillingford v. Holmes, 634 F.2d 263 (5th Cir. Unit A 1981) (unjustified assault on citizen by police officer, and others will involve indirect injuries, Glover v. Alabama Department of Corrections, 734 F.2d 691 (11th Cir.1984) (prison official induces several prisoners to assault another prisoner), or injuries caused without the use of force, Espanola Way Corp. v. Meyerson, 690 F.2d 827 (11th Cir.1982) (city commissioners' alleged harassment of business through excessive regulation), ...

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