June 20, 2019

Supreme Court Decides McDonough v. Smith

On June 20, 2019, the United States Supreme Court decided McDonough v. Smith, No. 18-485, holding that the statute of limitations for a fabricated-evidence claim under 42 U.S.C. §1983 begins to run when the criminal proceedings against the plaintiff have terminated in his or her favor.

McDonough was the commissioner of a county board of elections in New York. Smith was appointed to investigate allegations of forged absentee ballots and to prosecute any criminal violations that his investigation turned up. McDonough alleged that Smith fabricated evidence (such as falsifying affidavits and coaching witnesses to lie) to implicate McDonough in the forgery. Relying in part on this allegedly fabricated evidence, Smith secured a grand jury indictment against McDonough. Smith presented the allegedly fabricated testimony at McDonough’s later criminal trial, which ended in a mistrial. A second trial (during which the same evidence was introduced) ended with McDonough’s acquittal.

A little less than three years after his acquittal, McDonough sued Smith in federal court under §1983, asserting a constitutional claim based on alleged fabrication of evidence. The district court dismissed the claim as untimely, holding that McDonough should have sued within three years (the agreed-upon limitation period) of learning that the evidence was false and was used against him in criminal proceedings and suffering a loss of liberty as a result of the evidence, both of which had occurred more than three years before he sued. The Second Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed. Federal courts look to state law for the length of the limitations period in a §1983 lawsuit, but the time at which a §1983 claim accrues is a question of federal law. To determine the accrual date, federal courts usually start by identifying the common-law tort that is most closely analogous to the plaintiff’s claim. The Court held that the tort of malicious prosecution was the common-law tort most closely analogous to McDonough’s claim because both claims challenge the integrity of criminal prosecutions undertaken under legal process and has similar elements to a common-law malicious-prosecution claim. And at common law, a plaintiff could not bring a malicious-prosecution claim until the prosecution terminated in his favor. The Court explained that this requirement is based on pragmatic concerns with avoiding parallel criminal and civil litigation over the same subject matter and the related possibility of conflicting civil and criminal judgments. Thus, only when the criminal proceeding has ended favorably to a defendant can that defendant sue for malicious prosecution at common law. And only at that point did McDonough have a complete and present cause of action for the loss of his liberty, which is required for a claim to accrue for purposes of the statute of limitations. Because McDonough sued within three years of his acquittal, his claim was timely.

Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, and Kavanaugh joined. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Kagan and Gorsuch joined.

Download Opinion of the Court.

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