McDonough v. Smith

LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided McDonough v. Smith .


Does the statute of limitations for a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 fabrication‑of‑evidence claim begin to run when the proceedings terminate in defendant’s favor or when the defendant first becomes aware of the tainted evidence and its improper use?

Oral argument: 
April 17, 2019

This case asks the Supreme Court to determine whether the statute of limitations on a fabrication‑of‑evidence claim begins upon termination of criminal proceedings or when the defendant first becomes aware of the fraudulent evidence. Edward McDonough was accused of forging and falsifying campaign documents during local elections in 2009, and he was acquitted in December 2012. Then, he sued Youel Smith, the prosecutor in McDonough’s case, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that he forged documents and falsified evidence in order to convict McDonough. In response, Smith moved to dismiss the suit, arguing that it was untimely and barred by laches. McDonough argues that fabrication‑of‑evidence claims should be analogized to malicious prosecution claims, where the limitations period begins once proceedings terminate in a defendant’s favor. On the other hand, Smith contends that such a suit could be brought earlier because it does not require showing a lack of probable cause. The outcome of this case will determine when a criminal defendant is expected to bring a fabrication­‑of‑evidence claim concerning associated criminal proceedings.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Whether the statute of limitations for a Section 1983 claim based on fabrication of evidence in criminal proceedings begins to run when those proceedings terminate in the defendant’s favor (as the majority of circuits have held) or whether it starts to run when the defendant becomes aware of the tainted evidence and its improper use (as the Second Circuit held below).


In 2009, Petitioner Edward G. McDonough served as the Democratic Commissioner of the Rensselaer County Board of Elections. During this time, several individuals associated with the Democratic and Working Families Parties falsified information and forged signatures. These forgeries and false documents were presented to McDonough, who claims that he did not realize their falsity. Thereafter, Respondent Youel Smith was appointed as a special prosecutor to investigate McDonough. Eventually, Smith’s prosecution of McDonough ended in a mistrial. After a retrial, McDonough was acquitted on December 21, 2012.

Then, on December 18, 2015, McDonough filed a due process lawsuit against Smith pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Smith had forged and falsified information himself in order to convict McDonough. Smith moved to dismiss the action because, among other things, the three-year statute of limitations had run and the information was disclosed to McDonough well before the acquittal. On September 30, 2016 and December 30, 2016, the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York dismissed both McDonough’s due process claim and malicious prosecution claim, respectively. The court dismissed the malicious prosecution claim because of the absolute‑immunity rule for prosecutors. But the district court concluded that, because McDonough knew or should have known that the evidence was being used against him, the statute of limitations had already begun to run, and so his due process claims were untimely.

Upon appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the court affirmed the dismissal of McDonough’s suits. The Second Circuit likewise found that McDonough’s due process claim began accruing once the fabricated evidence was used against him and once he knew of this use and was deprived of a liberty interest.

On January 11, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States granted McDonough’s petition for writ of certiorari.



McDonough argues that, although a § 1983 claim is a federal cause of action, the claim will depend on state law—including the state’s statute of limitations. However, McDonough attests that federal common-law tort principles will determine when the statute of limitations begins to run. According to McDonough, although the statute of limitations traditionally runs once a plaintiff’s claims are satisfied, courts will take exception to this general rule in § 1983 claims. McDonough maintains that sometimes courts should adopt the limitations rule that would apply in an analogous tort claim. Here, McDonough argues, the analogous tort claim is malicious prosecution because of the wrongfulness of prosecution and the focus on the criminal process itself. McDonough contends that courts have upheld malicious prosecution actions that were based on fabricated evidence akin to the type of fabrication here. As a result, McDonough posits that the Court should rule that the statute of limitations does not begin until a favorable termination is given. The reason for the rule, McDonough contends, is that courts can shield criminal proceedings from collateral attack or duplicitous proceedings.

Smith counters that McDonough relies too heavily on the significance of analogies to common tort laws. Indeed, Smith asserts that such common-law principles are meant to serve as a guide rather than a strict requirement. Smith continues by asserting that McDonough—despite having his malicious prosecution claim dismissed for absolute immunity—is trying to relate the remaining claim as if it were a malicious prosecution claim, even though a fabrication claim is in fact completely separate. Unlike malicious prosecution, Smith contends, a fabrication claim does not require an acquittal or other favorable termination because such a claim can be brought against the Government. Thus, argues Smith, the accrual period should begin when the wrong happened, not when the proceedings ended. Smith further argues that malicious prosecution is viewed as a Fourth Amendment issue by the courts and the accrual period, under Fourth Amendment claims, can start during criminal proceedings. Smith also contends that McDonough’s surviving claim does not assert a lack of probable cause, making his constitutional-violation claims unclear unless the claim is categorized as a substantive due process claim. Under such a claim, argues Smith, the conclusion of proceedings is irrelevant, the claim is available to any defendant, and the claim can thus be brought at any time.


McDonough also argues that in the event the court adopts the standard rule for statute-of-limitations accrual, the claim is still timely. McDonough contends that the accrual period cannot start until a plaintiff is eligible or permitted to file suit. McDonough maintains that he was unable to file suit until the acquittal because of the rules established in Preiser v. Rodriguez and Heck v. Humphrey. The court in Preiser, McDonough asserts, established a rule that when an individual is in custody and wants to challenge the facts or duration of his custody, the sole remedy is a writ of habeas corpus. Thus, McDonough explains, because the court considers custody to apply broadly––like being released on recognizance––he was barred from bringing suit until acquittal. Additionally, McDonough argues that, under Heck, the court applied the rule to a seeking of monetary damages in relation to criminal confinement, so that the plaintiff’s claim does not accrue until favorable termination. McDonough also maintains that the Court should adopt favorable termination as an element of McDonough’s claim because it would prevent collateral attack, duplicitous or parallel litigation, and because the liberty of the individual is severely affected and often public.

Smith counters that McDonough inappropriately applies Heck as a bar to his claims despite Heck’s inapplicability to his claims. That is, Smith maintains that Wallace v. Kato provided the limits of Heck, which only applies where a suit would challenge an outstanding criminal judgment and not to anticipate future convictions. Additionally, Smith contends that a district court holds the authority to stay civil proceedings if there are ongoing criminal proceedings but there posed no obstacle for Smith to bring his § 1983 claims. Concerning McDonough’s pretrial custody, Smith argues that McDonough’s remaining claim involves fabrication of evidence and not his pretrial custody, and therefore should be dismissed. Also, Smith cautions that McDonough’s reliance on Preiser and his reading would expand the doctrine and would require any claimant to seek a writ of habeas corpus regardless of whether the custody stems from a conviction. Smith also maintains that Wallace renders McDonough’s Preiser argument moot, arguing that Wallace establishes that an individual can file suit immediately upon false arrest.


McDonough argues that the suit is also timely because the criminal proceedings represented a continuous violation as opposed to a singular, discrete act. McDonough explains that a claim does not accrue until the end of the violation. He contends that the Court has applied the same doctrine to Title VII cases involving racial discrimination. McDonough argues that a legal proceeding constitutes a continuous wrong—which does not end until the complaining party ceases prosecution of the proceedings—and not an isolated harm. McDonough further maintains that Smith’s forgery and falsifications did not only occur at the beginning of the proceedings, but were continuous throughout the trial including false testimonies and forged witness affidavits. Additionally, McDonough explains that the forgeries and false evidence not only occurred in the first litigation, but also in the subsequent litigation, where the later use of such evidence is not irrelevant, and thus an individual has a right to remedy those wrongs.

Smith counters that the continuous-violation doctrine does not apply to McDonough’s claim. Smith cites Wallace once more where the court, in that case, determined that the limitations period of the plaintiff who sued under § 1983 began when the plaintiff could first file suit which was as soon as the wrongful act took place. Furthermore, argues Smith, the rule dictates that, although harm can continue due to wrongful prosecution, it is not the full extent of damages that is required for the limitation period to begin to run. Smith further contends that even if the statute of limitations were to run on the last cognizable harm, McDonough’s claim would still be untimely because the last harm did not occur within three years of the filing of his current § 1983 claim. That is, Smith asserts that McDonough’s identified harms—the presentation of fabricated evidence to the grand jury and the use of fabricated evidence during the trial—both of which occurred before December 18, 2012. Smith also maintains that the acquittal itself does not constitute a harm because it is not a deprivation of an individual’s liberty.



The Criminal Justice Institute of Harvard Law School (“CJI of HLS”), in support of McDonough, argues that adopting the Second Circuit’s analogous attribution of McDonough’s claim to false arrest tort claims would shorten the statute-of-limitation period so as to forfeit it all together. CJI of HLS, in the alternative, contends that a plaintiff will have to attack their criminal conviction while proceedings are ongoing. The Cause of Action Institute likewise argues that accrual during the related criminal proceedings will not only create an adversarial relationship between the defendant and the prosecutorial agent, but will also require defendants to litigate a trial within a trial with the added expense of filings, depositions, and discovery.

Smith counters that adopting a standard accrual rule will not lead to duplicitous or parallel suits. Smith asserts that the filing of an additional § 1983 case, while a related criminal case is ongoing, will likely lead to the staying of the civil action until the criminal case has concluded. In fact, Smith maintains that this type of litigation tactic is common between private parties and the Government in which the two parties are dealing with related matters and the same defendants. Smith continues by stating that an early filing serves a notice function to those witnesses such as officers who will likely attempt to preserve their recollections of events concerning a cause of action if they know right away that they may have to testify.


CJI of HLS also argues that adhering to the Second Circuit’s rule will set the standard for accrual, forcing criminal defendants to bring a claim before they know whether such a claim will be moot. Therefore, CJI of HLS contends, criminal defendants will wait to bring meritorious claims until their criminal proceedings are finalized which may lead to a bar to filing the claim. Additionally, the Innocence Network adds that the Heck’s deferred statute-of-limitations rule, which hinges on conviction, simultaneously weeds out frivolous claims and permits those meritorious claims to have their day in court upon their acquittal. The Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at NYU School of Law, the American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law assert that criminal defendants will not bring claims because doing so will have adverse effects on their chances in criminal proceedings, such as the necessity of testifying in a § 1983 case while pleading the Fifth Amendment in a criminal proceeding.

Smith counters, unlike the amici, that the favorable termination element poses a risk of barring meritorious claims. Smith contends where a rule relies on favorable termination, actors are incentivized to have the proceedings terminate unfavorably. That is, prosecutors may pursue unfavorable opportunities such as seeking a nolle prosequi to bar the criminal defendant from bringing his or her claim. Further, Smith argues that adopting the standard rule for limitations would eliminate those claims which are barred because of laches—or because they waited too long to bring suit. Additionally, the United States contends that the fabrication-of-evidence claim should be remanded and dismissed under the absolute-immunity rule. The Government asserts that the alleged wrongful conduct falls under the prosecutor’s investigative capacities and, like a police officer or detective, should be given the same immunity, otherwise not applying the rule to a special prosecutor could be seen as arbitrary and unjustifiable.

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