Nahmod Law

Section 1983 Litigators Must Know Their State’s Preclusion Law

By virtue of 28 U.S.C. § 1738, federal courts addressing § 1983 claims must apply the claim preclusion law (res judicata) and issue preclusion law (collateral estoppel) of the forum state where there are relevant prior state judicial proceedings. This means that § 1983 litigators must know their state’s preclusion law or suffer the consequences. See generally, Chapter 9 in Nahmod, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Litigation: The Law of Section 1983 (2020)(West/Westlaw).

What follows are recent examples from the Fourth, Sixth and Eleventh Circuits.

The Fourth Circuit’s Gilliam Decision: Collateral Estoppel Not Applicable Under North Carolina Law Where Criminal Convictions Vacated

According to the Fourth Circuit, which applied North Carolina preclusion law, the plaintiffs, two brothers with severe intellectual disabilities who had served 31 years before being conclusively exonerated by DNA evidence and a governer’s pardon, were not collaterally estopped from relitigating their § 1983 claims of lack of probable cause and the voluntariness of their  confessions. Their criminal convictions, later vacated, did not conclusively establish that probable cause existed because the North Carolina “fraud exception” applied: the convictions were obtained improperly.

As to the voluntariness of the plaintiffs’ confessions: collateral estoppel did not apply here either because, even though the state court judges presiding over the criminal trials had ruled the confessions were voluntary, those criminal convictions were vacated. Under North Carolina law, a judgment must be valid in order to have preclusive effect. Gilliam v. Sealey, 932 F.3d 216 (4th Cir. 2019).

The Sixth Circuit’s Peterson Decision: Collateral Estoppel Not Applicable Under Michigan Law Where Criminal Convictions Vacated

Where the plaintiff’s rape and murder convictions were vacated and he sued various county and state law enforcement officers for violating his constitutional rights, the Sixth Circuit found that collateral estoppel did not preclude plaintiff’s claim that his confession was coerced. Even though a state trial court had found that the confession was not coerced at a so-called “Walker hearing,” the criminal judgment was eventually vacated, with the result that the trial court’s interlocutory rulings were vacated as well. “And vacated rulings have no preclusive effect under Michigan law.” Peterson v. Heymes, 931 F.3d 546 (6th Cir. 2019).

The Eleventh Circuit’s Hunter Decision: A Mixed Result Under Alabama Law For Guilty Plea

The plaintiff sued police officers under §1983 alleging that they used excessive force when they shot him after a four-car police chase. Applying Alabama preclusion law, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that the plaintiff’s guilty plea to menacing precluded him from relitigating the question of whether he pointed his gun at one of the officers: the defendant officers shared an identity of interest with the state in the criminal proceeding, the issue of pointing his gun at an officer was identical in both proceedings and was actually decided in the criminal proceeding and, by pleading guilty, the plaintiff necessarily admitting to pointing his gun at the officer. However, he was not precluded from contesting the officer’s statements regarding the number of times he allegedly pointed his gun. His guilty plea could not be fairly construed as an admission that he pointed his gun at the officer three times: this was not necessarily decided. Hunter v. City of Leeds, 941 F.3d 1265 (11th Cir. 2019). Judge Gilman concurred, briefly noting a qualified immunity issue.


All three of the above cases deal with the defensive use of collateral estoppel by § 1983 defendants against § 1983 plaintiffs where there were prior state criminal proceedings. However, there can be circumstances in which § 1983 plaintiffs attempt to use prior state criminal proceedings in their favor. This is offensive collateral estoppel.

In addition, while these three cases deal with prior state criminal proceedings, a state’s preclusion law may also be applicable by virtue of § 1738 to prior state civil proceedings. Moreover, this includes claim preclusion as well, not only issue preclusion.

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Written by snahmod

June 22, 2021 at 10:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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