St. Louis v. Haller et al
MEMORANDUM. Signed by Judge Sue L. Robinson on 10/17/2016. (nmg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF DELAWARE
JAMES ST. LOUIS,
KARL HALLER, et aI.,
) Civ. No. 16-356-SLR
1. Introduction. Plaintiff James St. Louis ("plaintiff") , an inmate at the James T.
Vaughn Correctional Center, Smyrna, Delaware, proceeds pro se and has paid the
filing fee. He filed this complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C.§ 1983 claiming violations of his
constitutional rights. 1 (0.1. 1)
2. Standard of Review. A federal court may properly dismiss an action sua
sponte under the screening provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b) if "the action is frivolous
or malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary
relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief." Ball v. Famig/io, 726 F.3d 448,
452 (3d Cir. 2013); see a/so 28 U.S.C. § 1915A (actions in which prisoner seeks
redress from a governmental defendant).2 The court must accept all factual allegations
in a complaint as true and take them in the light most favorable to a pro se plaintiff.
lWhen bringing a § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must allege that some person has
deprived him of a federal right, and that the person who caused the deprivation acted
under color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988).
2Section 1915A(b)(1) is applicable to all prisoner lawsuits regardless of whether
the litigant paid the fee all at once or in installments. Stringer v. Bureau of Prisons,
Fed. Agency, 145 F. App'x 751,752 (3d Cir. 2005) (unpublished).
Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224,229 (3d Cir. 2008); Erickson v. Pardus,
551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007). Because plaintiff proceeds pro se, his pleading is liberally
construed and his complaint, "however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent
standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. at
94 (citations omitted).
3. An action is frivolous if it "lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact."
Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989). Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1), a court
may dismiss a complaint as frivolous if it is "based on an indisputably meritless legal
theory" or a "clearly baseless" or "fantastic or delusional" factual scenario. Neitzke, 490
at 327-28; Wilson v. Rackmill, 878 F.2d 772, 774 (3d Cir. 1989); see, e.g., Deutsch v.
United States, 67 F.3d 1080, 1091-92 (3d Cir. 1995) (holding frivolous a suit alleging
that prison officials took an inmate's pen and refused to give it back).
4. The legal standard for dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim
pursuant to § 1915A(b)(1) is identical to the legal standard used when ruling on Rule
12(b)(6) motions. Tourscher v. McCullough, 184 F.3d 236, 240 (3d Cir. 1999) (applying
Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) standard to dismissal for failure to state a claim under
§ 1915(e)(2)(B)). However, before dismissing a complaint or claims for failure to state a
claim upon which relief may be granted pursuant to the screening provisions of 28
U.S.C. § 1915A, the court must grant plaintiff leave to amend his complaint unless
amendment would be inequitable or futile. See Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293
F.3d 103, 114 (3d Cir. 2002).
5. A well-pleaded complaint must contain more than mere labels and
conclusions. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly,
550 U.S. 544 (2007). A plaintiff must plead facts sufficient to show that a claim has
substantive plausibility. See Johnson v. City of Shelby, _U.S._, 135 S.Ct. 346, 347
(2014). A complaint may not dismissed, however, for imperfect statements of the legal
theory supporting the claim asserted. See id. at 346.
6. Under the pleading regime established by Twombly and Iqbal, a court
reviewing the sufficiency of a complaint must take three steps: (1) take note of the
elements the plaintiff must plead to state a claim; (2) identify allegations that, because
they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth; and
(3) when there are well-pleaded factual allegations, the court should assume their
veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.
Connelly v. Lane Const. Corp., 809 F.3d 780,787 (3d Cir. 2016) (internal citations and
quotations omitted). Elements are sufficiently alleged when the facts in the complaint
"show" that the plaintiff is entitled to relief. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (quoting Fed. R. Civ.
P. 8(a)(2)). Deciding whether a claim is plausible will be a "context-specific task that
requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id.
7. Discussion. Plaintiff alleges that defendants defense counsel Karl Haller
("Haller"), public defender Carol Dunn ("Dunn"), and State prosecutor Melanie Withers
("Withers") conspired to deny him his right to due process during 2001 criminal
proceedings. On May 1, 2001, after a jury trial, plaintiff was found guilty of rape in the
first degree and continuous sexual abuse of a child. State v. St. Louis, 2016 WL
5864584, at *1 (Del. Super. Oct. 5,2016). Plaintiff was sentenced on June 22,2001,
as follows: for rape in the first degree, 30 years at level five, suspended after 20 years
for six months at level four, followed by nine years six months at level three; for
continuous sexual abuse of a child, ten years at level five, suspended after two years
for eight years at level three. Id. Plaintiff appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court on
July 19, 2001, and it affirmed the decision on May 24,2002. See Sf. Louis v. State,
798 A.2d 1042,2002 WL 1160979, at *1 (Del. May 24,2002) (table). Since then, he
has filed seven motions for postconviction relief in the State court. See State v. Sf.
Louis, 2016 WL 5864584, at *1.
8. Plaintiff's claims revolve around alleged witness tampering and its impact on
his criminal trial. He alleges that Withers was behind witness tampering, that Haller
was aware there had been witness tampering, but that neither the court nor the jury
ever heard allegations or facts that the victim's testimony was manipulated and
coerced. (0.1. 1,
Plaintiff asked his counsel to argue prosecutorial
misconduct and third party witness tampering on appeal and in plaintiff's post-conviction
relief petition, but the issues were not addressed. 3 (ld. at,-r 31) Plaintiff states that the
31t is unclear from the complaint if counsel represented plaintiff in any of his
many petitions for post-conviction relief. However, the court takes judicial notice that
plaintiff appeared pro se when he filed his first motion for post-conviction relief in May
2003, and there is no indication that counsel represented plaintiff in the other petitions
for post-conviction relief subsequently filed by him. See State v. St. Louis, 2004 WL
215364 (Del. Super. 2004), aff'd, St. Louis v. State, 869 A.2d 328 (Del. 2005) (denying
motion for post-conviction relief and motion for appointment of counsel). Nor does the
complaint indicate that Withers represented the State in any of the post-conviction
foregoing issues, as well as conspiracy and civil contempt were argued in state and
federal court, but the courts have not adjudicated the issues. (ld. at,-r 32)
9. Plaintiff alleges that: (1) Haller and Dunn failed to protect his constitutional
rights by conspiring with the State prosecutor to ignore the State's felonious behavior
and a third party which resulted in government misconduct and impropriety for the jury
to return a guilty verdict; (2) although plaintiff made a request, Haller failed to raise the
issues of conspiracy and government misconduct and improprieties on direct appeal;
(3) Haller and Dunn failed to report misconduct and improprieties to the judiciary during
trial or through an internal investigation; (4) Withers secured a guilty verdict by allowing,
instigating, advising, and prompting a third party to manipulate, discuss, and violate a
civil contempt order requested by the State to discuss further testimony; (5) Haller and
Dunn violated plaintiff's Sixth Amendment rights; (6) Haller and Dunn had a duty to
protect plaintiff and insure a fair and just trial; and (7) defendants breached their duties
by failing to protect plaintiff's rights and their sworn duties as attorneys. (ld. at ,-r,-r 33
10. Statute of Limitations. The actions complained of by plaintiff occurred in
2001. He commenced this action in 2016. For purposes of the statute of limitations,
§ 1983 claims are characterized as personal injury actions. Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S.
261, 275 (1983). In Delaware, § 1983 claims are subject to a two-year limitations
period. See 10 Del. C. § 8119; Johnson v. Cullen, 925 F. Supp. 244,248 (D. Del.
1996). Section 1983 claims accrue "when the plaintiff knew or should have known of
the injury upon which [his] action is based." Sameric Corp. v. City of Philadelphia, 142
F.3d 582, 599 (3d Cir. 1998). Claims not 'filed within the two-year statute of limitations
period are time-barred and must be dismissed. See Smith v. State, 2001 WL 845654,
at *2 (D. Del. July 24, 2001).
11. The statute of limitations is an affirmative defense that generally must be
raised by the defendant, and it is waived if not properly raised. See Benak ex reI.
Alliance Premier Growth Fund v. Alliance Capital Mgmt. L.P., 435 F.3d 396, 400 n.14
(3d Cir. 2006); Fassett v. Delta Kappa Epsilon, 807 F.2d 1150, 1167 (3d Cir. 1986).
"[W]here the statute of limitations defense is obvious from the face of the complaint and
no development of the factual record is required to determine whether dismissal is
appropriate, sua sponte dismissal under 28 U.S.C. § 1915 is permissible." Davis v.
Gauby, 408 F. App'x 524, 526 (3d Cir. 2010) (unpublished) (quoting Fogle
435 F.3d 1252, 1258 (10th Cir. 2006)).
12. Plaintiff attempts to avoid running afoul of the limitation period by alleging:
The statute of limitations exception to rules for action that if successful
would demonstrate that a person['s] criminal conviction or sentencing or
continuing confinement is invalid. It also is [an] exception if the forgone
[sic] claim has NOT been adjudicated when addressed to the courts. If
the RESULTS of the violation [occur] over a period of time it may be
considered to be a "continuous wrong" or continuing harm violation which
means the statute of limitation may NOT start to run until the end of
that period. See HARDEN v STRAUB 109 S.CT. 1998 (1989)
(0.1. 1, 1f 12)
13. Plaintiff's reliance on Harden
Straub, 490 U.S. 536 (1989), is misplaced.
The Third Circuit has recognized, as set forth in Harden, that a state's statute of
limitations for personal injury tort claims-and its tolling principles-generally govern
§ 1983 claims. See Wadis v. Norristown State Hosp., 617 F. App'x 133 n.3 (3d Cir.
2015) (unpublished). In Hardin, the Michigan statute had a provision that tolled the
limitations period during an inmate's incarceration. Id. Delaware, however, does not
have a provision that tolls the limitations period during an inmate's incarceration. See
Marvel v. Clay, 1995 WL 465322, at *4 (Del. Super. 1995) (there appears to be no
general equitable principle requiring a statute of limitations to be tolled for incarcerated
plaintiffs, there is no such statute in Delaware, and incarceration alone is not sufficient
to toll the statute).
14. Continuing Violation. Plaintiff also attempts to avoid the limitations period
by alleging that the acts of defendants may be considered a "continuous wrong" or
"continuing harm." (0.1. 1,
Under a continuing violation theory, if defendants
engaged in a continual course of conduct and plaintiff's action is timely as to any act in
that course of conduct, plaintiff may be permitted to litigate violations that are part of the
course of conduct. Van Heest v. McNeilab, Inc., 624. F. Supp. 891, 896 (D. Del. 1985).
A "continuing violation is occasioned by continual unlawful acts, not continual ill effects
from an original violation." See Sandutch v. Muroski, 684 F.2d 252, 254 (3d Cir. 1982).
15. In the present case, the complaint fails to assert any affirmative acts of
defendants beyond the acts taken by them during plaintiff's 2001 criminal trial and
direct appeal (decided by the Delaware Supreme Court on May 24, 2002, St. Louis v.
State, 798 A.2d 1042 (Del. 2002) (table».4 Nor is there any indication that defendants
took any action or had any involvement in plaintiff's motions for post-conviction relief.
See n.3, supra. The actions taken by defendants as alleged by plaintiff are discrete
4Matters of public record, including government agency records and judicial
records, may be considered by the court. Jean Alexander Cosmetics, Inc. v. L'Oreal
USA, Inc., 458 F.3d 244, 257 n.5 (3d Cir. 2006) (citation omitted).
and fixed in time. The only thing that appears to be continuing is plaintiff's
incarceration. The continuing violation theory does not save plaintiff's claims against
defendants. The claims are time-barred, the instant complaint having been filed many
years after the expiration of the limitation period. Therefore, the court will dismiss the
complaint as legally frivolous pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1).
16. Claim Preclusion. Finally, the claims against defendants are barred by
reason of res judicata as they arise from the same set of facts or claims adjudicated on
the merits in plaintiff's earlier § 1983 lawsuits. See St. Louis v. Wilson, Civ. No. 05-038
SLR, 0.1. 11 (D. Del. Sept. 13, 2005) (against Haller, Dunn, and Withers, challenging
the legality and propriety of plaintiff's arrest, conviction, sentence, confinement, and
prison classification, dismissed as barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994),
as raised against non-State actors, and based upon prosecutorial immunity); St. Louis
v. Wilson, Civ. No. 06-682-SLR, 0.1. 12 (D. Del. Apr. 24, 2007) (against Withers, raising
many of the same allegations within the same time-frame as Civ. No. 05-038-SLR, and
dismissed as frivolous, malicious, and time-barred); and St. Louis v. Marshall, Civ. No.
07-084-SLR, 0.1. 8 (D. Del. Apr. 24, 2007)5 (against Haller and Withers, challenging
actions taken during criminal proceedings, including the veracity of minors' testimony
and witness tampering, dismissed as malicious and frivolous, as raised against nonState actors, and based upon prosecutorial immunity).
5The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Civ. Nos. 06-682-SLR and 07-084
SLR, for substantially the same reasons as given by the court, remanding the matters
only for the court to resolve the issue of full payment of the filing fee. See St. Louis v.
Wilson, 248 F. App'x 343 (3d Cir. 2007) (unpublished).
17. Claim preclusion, formerly referred to as res judicata, bars a claim litigated
between the same parties or their privies in earlier litigation where the claim arises from
the same set of facts as a claim adjudicated on the merits in the earlier litigation. Blunt
Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 767 F.3d 247, 276 (3d Cir. 2014). Res judicata bars not
only claims that were brought in the previous action, but also claims that could have
been brought. Id. at 277 (citations omitted). "A claim extinguished by res judicata
includes all rights of the plaintiff to remedies against the defendant with respect to all or
any part of the transaction, or series of connected transactions, out of which the action
arose." Id. (citations omitted). The claims in the instant complaint are either the same
as those previously raised by plaintiff, or they could have been raised in plaintiff's prior
complaints. Accordingly, the court will dismiss the instant complaint as frivolous
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1), as it lacks arguable merit in fact or law as barred
under the principles of res judicata or claim preclusion.
18. Conclusion. For the above reasons, the court will dismiss the action as
legally frivolous as time-barred and by reason of claim preclusion pursuant to 28 U.S.C.
§ 1915(A)(b)(1). The court will also deny plaintiff's request for counsel, found at page 9
of the complaint. 6 The court finds amendment futile. A separate order shall issue.
Dated: October II
6Plaintiff has paid the filing fee and was denied in forma pauperis status. As
such, the court is without authority to consider his request for counsel. See 28 U.S.C.
§ 1915(e)(1). Even were plaintiff proceeding in forma pauperis, counsel is not
warranted in this matter.
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