Nahmod Law

McDonough v. Smith: The Supreme Court Answers an Important Section 1983 Fabrication of Evidence Accrual Question

McDonough v. Smith and Accrual of Section 1983 Due Process Fabrication of Evidence Claims

The Supreme Court, on June 20, 2019, handed down an important section 1983 accrual decision in McDonough v. Smith (No. 18-485). Reversing the Second Circuit, it ruled (6-3) in an opinion by Justice Sotomayor that a section 1983 due process claim of fabrication of evidence accrues when criminal proceedings against the section 1983 plaintiff are terminated in his or her favor, not earlier when the plaintiff discovered the use of such fabricated evidence. Justice Thomas, joined by Justices Kagan and Gorsuch, dissented, arguing that certiorari was improvidently granted, and the case should be dismissed, for failure of the plaintiff to identify with any specificity the particular constitutional violation alleged.

(For useful background on section 1983, statutes of limitation and accrual, consult my earlier posts. On section 1983 and statutes of limitation generally: https://nahmodlaw.com/2011/10/27/a-section-1983-primer-5-statutes-of-limitations/. On statutes of limitation and accrual after Heck v. Humphrey: https://nahmodlaw.com/2013/06/17/a-section-1983-primer-10-statutes-of-limitations-and-accrual-after-heck-v-humphrey/. And on statutes of limitation and continuing violations: https://nahmodlaw.com/2014/06/09/a-section-1983-primer-11-statutes-of-limitation-and-continuing-violations/)

The Lower Courts

In McDonough, the plaintiff, a former commissioner of a county board of elections, processed forged absentee ballots submitted in a primary election. He alleged that he had done so not knowing they were forged. The defendant, a special prosecutor, allegedly “scapegoated” the plaintiff because of a political grudge and, despite evidence of plaintiff’s innocence, falsified affidavits, coached witnesses to lie and orchestrated a DNA analysis in order to incriminate the plaintiff. The defendant obtained a grand jury indictment against the plaintiff who was arrested, arraigned and released with restricted travel allowed. The plaintiff was then tried criminally by the defendant, ending in a mistrial in January 2012. He was then again tried criminally by the defendant, this time ending in plaintiff’s acquittal on all charges on December 21, 2012. He filed his section 1983 lawsuit on December 18, 2015, alleging fabrication of evidence based on due process as well as malicious prosecution. The latter claim was dismissed by the district court on absolute immunity grounds, while the former was dismissed because it was untimely under the applicable New York three year limitations period. The Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s reasoning that the plaintiff’s section 1983 fabrication of evidence claim accrued by January 2012 when the plaintiff discovered the use of the allegedly fabricated evidence against him, and was therefore time-barred. It rejected the plaintiff’s argument that his fabrication of evidence claim accrued on December 21, 2012, when he was acquitted on all charges.

The Supreme Court’s Opinion

In turn reversing, the Supreme Court held that the plaintiff’s section 1983 due process fabrication of evidence claim was timely because it indeed accrued when the plaintiff was acquitted on all charges on December 21, 2012. His claim was therefore timely (within three days to go).

After observing that section 1983 accrual is a question of federal law, the Court had little difficulty, in reliance on Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), in analogizing the plaintiff’s due process fabrication of evidence claim to the common law tort of malicious prosecution. As in malicious prosecution, the plaintiff here alleged that he was deprived of his liberty because of the defendant’s “malfeasance” in fabricating evidence. “At bottom, both claims challenge the integrity of criminal prosecutions undertaken ‘pursuant to legal process.'” (citing Heck). For that reason, the plaintiff’s section 1983 fabrication of evidence claim accrued when his prosecution was favorably terminated, and not before. Applying  the discovery accrual rule here would give rise to Heck‘s concerns with parallel litigation (in the state criminal proceeding and in federal court) and conflicting judgments, even though the plaintiff in Heck was convicted and the plaintiff here was acquitted. Prosecutions often lasted nearly as long as the civil limitations period, with the result that criminal defendants would have to choose whether to let their claims expire or to sue the person who was prosecuting them. Stays and abstention were not a good solution. For all these reasons, the plaintiff’s due process fabrication of evidence claim accrued when he was acquitted.

Comments

1. The Court’s decision is a sound one. It made clear that the Second Circuit’s use of the discovery rule in a section 1983 case where a plaintiff alleges a due process fabrication of evidence claim that challenges the fairness of a criminal proceeding itself, was not only contrary to what most other circuits had decided but was wrong. It makes sense that such a claim is only complete, and accrues, when the criminal proceeding terminates in the plaintiff’s favor, whether through an overturned conviction as required by Heck, or through an acquittal as in McDonough itself. Furthermore, the Court emphasized, this federal accrual rule “respects the autonomy of state courts and avoids these costs to litigants and federal courts.”

The Court’s approach in McDonough is consistent with Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384 (2007), which explained that the accrual question, a question of federal law, should conform in general to common law principles. Wallace went on to rule that the section 1983 plaintiff there challenged the constitutionality of his arrest under the Fourth Amendment, and this was analogous to the common law tort of false imprisonment. Thus, his claim accrued at the time of his arrest even though custody followed.

2. It is therefore crucial that a section 1983 plaintiff identify with some specificity just what is challenged as unconstitutional and under what constitutional provision. Is it an arrest? Is it a conviction? Is it custody or a deprivation of liberty? Is the claim brought under the Fourth Amendment or due process or both (or perhaps another constitutional provision)? This is an important lesson that the dissenters (and the Court’s section 1983 cases) teach. I listened to the oral argument in McDonough some time ago and heard for myself how the justices tried to get a specific sense of the constitutional provision on which the plaintiff relied, and how frustrated several of them were at the responses (or lack thereof) to their questions.

3. On remand, the plaintiff in McDonough will face the defense of absolute prosecutorial immunity, which raises the question of what aspects of the defendant’s alleged conduct are investigative (and protected by qualified immunity) and advocative (and protected by absolute immunity). See generally chapters 7 and 8 of my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2018)(West).

4. For those of us interested in section 1983 malicious prosecution claims (and isn’t everyone?), it is worth mentioning footnote 4 of the Court’s opinion in which it expressed no view on the Second Circuit’s borrowing of common law elements of malicious prosecution to govern the McDonough plaintiff’s dismissed section 1983 malicious prosecution claim. Such borrowing is just plain wrong, as I have argued repeatedly. See my Amicus Brief in Manuel v. City of Joliet, 137 S. Ct. 911 (2017): https://nahmodlaw.com/2016/08/16/my-amicus-in-manuel-v-city-of-joliet-no-14-9496-section-1983-malicious-prosecution/

5. Finally, the real world implications of McDonough are profound. Regardless of whether wrongful prosecutions lead to convictions that are eventually overturned (per Heck), to acquittals (per McDonough) or to dismissal of all charges wrongfully brought, the accrual rule is now appropriately the same where the section 1983 challenge is to the constitutionality of the criminal proceeding itself (always subject, of course, to the possible application of absolute prosecutorial immunity).

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Written by snahmod

June 21, 2019 at 2:27 pm

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