Nahmod Law

Reed v. Goertz: A New Supreme Court §1983 Accrual Decision

In a much-read post on statutes of limitation and §1983, I discuss the important principle that §1983 accrual rules are matters of federal law. (See

In related subsequent posts and in my Treatise, I address the special accrual rule of Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), where the plaintiff has a prior conviction whose validity might be implicated by a successful §1983 action; Wallace v. Kato, 127 S. Ct. 1091 (2007), the accrual of §1983 Fourth Amendment false arrest claims; McDonough v. Smith, 139 S. Ct. 2149 (2019), the accrual of §1983 fabrication of evidence claims; and Thompson v. Clark, 142 S. Ct. 1332 (2022), accrual on favorable termination of §1983 Fourth Amendment “malicious prosecution” claims. See Chapter 9 in Nahmod, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (2022-23 ed.)(West/Westlaw).

Now comes Reed v. Goertz, 143 S. Ct. — (April 19, 2023), reversing, 995 F.3d 425 (5th Cir. 2021), where the plaintiff inmate, sentenced to death for murder, sued state officials for prospective relief under §1983 alleging that, in violation of procedural due process, he was denied access to physical evidence that he wanted to test for DNA, Ruling that this claim, filed in August 2019, was time-barred under the applicable two-year Texas personal injury statute of limitations, the Fifth Circuit found that the plaintiff first became aware that his rights were possibly being violated when a trial court denied his motion for post-conviction relief regarding DNA testing in November 2014. At that time, he had all of the relevant information he needed and, moreover, was not required under §1983 to exhaust judicial remedies. Thus, under the discovery rule, he knew or should have known of his alleged injury five years before he sued. The Fifth Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s argument that his cause of action accrued in October 2017 when, following appeal of the trial court’s denial of his motion and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ affirmance of that denial, it denied rehearing in October 2017.

The Supreme Court, agreeing with the plaintiff, reversed in an opinion by Justice Kavanaugh and found the plaintiff’s §1983 claim timely. It determined that because the plaintiff’s §1983 claim sounded in procedural due process, that denial of procedural due process was only complete in October 2017, when the Texas Court of Appeal denied rehearing. It was only at this time that the state court litigation effectively ended.

Justice Thomas dissented, arguing that the district did not have subject matter jurisdiction in the first place, including under the rationale of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, because the plaintiff was really seeking review of the Texas Court of Appeals decision. Justice Alito, joined by Justice Gorsuch, also dissented, contending that the plaintiff’s §1983 procedural due process claim accrued when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial court on April 12, 2017, and not later when it denied plaintiff’s motion for rehearing.


It is crucial in §1983 accrual cases to understand just what the question is: when are all the elements of the claim present? Since this claim is federal, it is understandable that accrual of §1983 claims must be a matter of federal law.

It is also essential in §1983 accrual cases to identify just what the constitutional basis for the claim is. Or to put it another way, what precisely is the plaintiff challenging? In Reed it is the denial of procedural due process, and this was determinative for the majority of just when the plaintiff’s claim accrued. In other situations, such as those involving §1983 Fourth Amendment arrest claims, the accrual rule is different. See Wallace. Or in still other situations, such as fabrication of evidence and Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution, the accrual rule is again different. See McDonough and Thompson.

From that perspective, Reed is a narrow decision applicable to the relatively few cases involving §1983 procedural (not substantive) due process prospective relief challenges by convicted persons to government refusals to provide possibly exonerating evidence. But the Court’s general approach is consistent with its approach in other §1983 accrual cases.

One more observation: it is notable how Justice Thomas (gratuitously?) raises a host of subject matter jurisdiction issues–Article III standing and justiciability in general, as well as Rooker-Feldman–that the majority gives such sort shrift to.

Written by snahmod

April 21, 2023 at 11:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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