Nahmod Law

My Amicus in Manuel v. City of Joliet, No. 14-9496: Section 1983 “Malicious Prosecution”

As some of you know, I have been arguing for quite some time that the scope of section 1983 should not be governed by tort law. See Nahmod, Section 1983 and the “Background” of Tort Liability, 50 Ind. L.J. 5 (1974).

Along the same lines, I have consistently maintained that the elements of the tort of malicious prosecution should play no meaningful role in section 1983 statutory interpretation–see my post of Sept. 11, 2009. The only exception is where section 1983 damages actions challenge existing convictions. Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994).

As noted in my post of March 24, 2016, the Supreme Court granted the plaintiff Petitioner’s petition for writ of certiorari in Manuel v. City of Joliet to address the question whether the Fourth Amendment can serve as the basis of a section 1983 “malicious prosecution” claim. Counsel for Respondents asked me to submit an amicus brief in support of affirming the Seventh Circuit‘s judgment for Respondents.

I filed my amicus brief on August 10, 2016, with the able assistance of Joshua Yount, Charles Woodworth and Michael Downey of Mayer Brown LLP, Chicago, Illinois.

The entire amicus brief is available here.

For those who do not want to read the entire brief, what follows is the full Introduction and Summary of Argument:


Over twenty years ago, this Court acknowledged “an embarrassing diversity of judicial opinion” on “the extent to which a claim of malicious prosecution is actionable under § 1983.” Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 270 n.4 (1994) (plurality opinion). This embarrassment continues, seriously impeding the vindication of the Fourteenth Amendment and other constitutional rights. The time has come to answer the fundamental issues raised by the Question Presented, which as the certiorari petition recognized (at 10-11, 21, 25-26), necessarily include whether the elements of the common law malicious prosecution tort—and the favorable termination element in particular— apply to Petitioner’s § 1983 claim.

The only defensible answer to that crucial statutory interpretation question is that the common law elements of malicious prosecution should play no independent role in determining the scope of claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Section 1983 created a federal statutory remedy for constitutional violations perpetrated by state actors, whereas malicious prosecution is a common law tort. To describe a § 1983 claim as “malicious prosecution” is a misnomer that directs attention away from the real inquiry—the elements of the constitutional provision underlying the particular § 1983 claim—and improperly focuses instead on the elements of the malicious prosecution tort. In this respect the Seventh Circuit gets it right while other circuits do not: “[I]f a plaintiff can establish a violation of the fourth (or any other) amendment there is nothing but confusion to be gained by calling the legal theory ‘malicious prosecution.’” Newsome v. McCabe, 256 F.3d 747, 751 (7th Cir. 2001).

Attempts to analogize between so-called § 1983 “malicious prosecution” claims and the common law elements of malicious prosecution have caused a great deal of confusion in the lower courts. The en banc Fifth Circuit described its own “precedent governing § 1983 malicious prosecution claims” as “a mix of misstatements and omissions” that has led to “inconsistencies and difficulties.” Castellano v. Fragozo, 352 F.3d 939, 949 (5th Cir. 2003) (en banc). And the Fifth Circuit acknowledged that it is “not alone in this drift. Other circuits have traveled uneven paths as well, and numerous approaches have developed after Albright.” Ibid.; see generally Sheldon H. Nahmod, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Litigation: The Law of Section 1983 §§ 3:66-3:67 (4th ed. 2015) (collecting and analyzing post-Albright cases in the circuits, and arguing that malicious prosecution law should not dictate scope of § 1983).

Petitioner tries to take advantage of this confusion to save his § 1983 “malicious prosecution” claim from dismissal on statute of limitations grounds. He maintains that § 1983 imports the “favorable termination” element of common law malicious prosecution, which would have prevented accrual of his claim until he was released and the charges against him dropped. Such a maneuver cannot be squared with § 1983 or this Court’s precedents.

1. Contrary to the rule that Petitioner needs to prevail, the elements of common law torts like malicious prosecution do not dictate the elements of a § 1983 claim. Nothing in the text of § 1983, its legislative history, or its purposes indicates that Congress intended to merely duplicate common law torts. Section 1983 by its own language was enacted to enforce the “rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” of the United States. 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Regardless of any superficial similarity between particular § 1983 actions and particular tort actions, the vital constitutional interests served by § 1983 are distinct from and independent of the principles that animate tort law.

The Court has consistently reaffirmed that constitutional deprivations are central to § 1983 claims. Thus, the statutory cause of action may be interpreted against the “background of tort liability,” but only to implement § 1983, not to define its scope. Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 187 (1961), overruled on other grounds by Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs. of City of N.Y., 436 U.S. 658 (1978). At most, common law principles can fill gaps as necessary to effectuate a damages remedy for constitutional violations.

2. Importing the common law elements of malicious prosecution into § 1983 would be particularly ill-advised. The last two decades have demonstrated that attempts to do so result only in confusion. Indeed, the fundamental disconnect between the elements of a § 1983 claim and the elements of a common law malicious prosecution claim virtually guarantees confusion. In addition, the entire enterprise of attempting to interpret a supposedly uniform federal cause of action based on tort law that varies not only from one state to another, but from the time of § 1983’s enactment in 1871 to the present day, is just not workable.

Finally, as a matter of § 1983 law and policy, there is no good reason to make any of the traditional elements of malicious prosecution into elements of Petitioner’s § 1983 claim for unlawful pretrial detention. Several of the malicious prosecution elements (including the favorable termination requirement) contradict established § 1983 precedents. And others (such as the absence of probable cause) make sense only to the extent that the underlying constitutional right requires their consideration. In short, this Court’s interpretation of § 1983 should not be governed by the common law tort of malicious prosecution.

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Written by snahmod

August 16, 2016 at 8:58 am

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