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Jordan v. Blount County

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

March 15, 2018

Douglas Jordan, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Blount County; Scott Carpenter; James Brooks, Defendants-Appellees.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee at Knoxville. No. 3:16-cv-00122-Pamela Lynn Reeves, District Judge.

         ON BRIEF:

          Gena Lewis, BANKS AND JONES, Knoxville, Tennessee, for Appellant.

          Craig L. Garrett, Maryville, Tennessee, for Appellee Blount County and Appellee Scott Carpenter in his official capacity.

          Gary M. Prince, N. Craig Strand, O'NEIL PARKER & WILLIAMSON, PLLC, Knoxville, Tennessee, for Appellee Scott Carpenter in his individual capacity.

          Laura Miller, OFFICE OF THE TENNESSEE ATTORNEY GENERAL, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellee James Brooks.

          Before: KEITH, KETHLEDGE, and THAPAR, Circuit Judges.



         Douglas Jordan seeks damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for prosecutorial misconduct that led to his wrongful conviction for second-degree murder. The district court dismissed his suit as untimely, holding that his claim accrued when the state court of appeals vacated his conviction, rather than when he was acquitted on remand. We respectfully disagree and reverse.

         In March 1998, Jennifer Byerley was found beside the road with her throat slashed. Jordan was charged and eventually convicted for the murder, but prosecutors never told him about certain evidence-namely a knife found near where Byerley had lain-that might have implicated someone else. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed on direct review, but Jordan thereafter sought post-conviction relief under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963), which requires the prosecution to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense. On that ground, the same court of appeals vacated Jordan's conviction in 2011 and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. See Jordan v. State, 343 S.W.3d 84 (Tenn. Ct. Crim. App. 2011); Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-30-111(a). Jordan was retried and acquitted in 2015.

         Less than a year later, Jordan sued a Blount County prosecutor, detective, and the County itself under § 1983, seeking damages for the Brady violation. The statute of limitations for that claim is one year. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104(a); Roberson v. Tennessee, 399 F.3d 792, 794 (6th Cir. 2005). The question here is whether, as the district court held, Jordan's claim accrued when his conviction was vacated, or whether instead it accrued upon his later acquittal. We review the district court's decision de novo. See Mills v. Barnard, 869 F.3d 473, 479 (6th Cir. 2017).

         As a general rule, a claim accrues "when the plaintiff can file suit and obtain relief." Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384, 388 (2007) (internal quotation marks omitted). To obtain relief, the plaintiff must be able to prove the elements of his claim. Cf. Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 257-58 (1978). To determine those elements for purposes of a claim brought under § 1983, "we look first to the common law of torts." Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 483 (1994).

         The closest common-law analogy to a Brady claim is one for malicious prosecution, because that claim, unlike one for false arrest, "permits damages for confinement imposed pursuant to legal process." Id. at 484. One element of a malicious-prosecution claim "is termination of the prior criminal proceeding in favor of the accused." Id. (citing W. Keeton et al., Prosser and Keeton on Law of Torts 874 (5th ed. 1984)). A Brady claim under § 1983 cannot accrue, therefore, until the criminal proceeding so terminates.

         Thus, the more specific question here is whether Jordan's "criminal proceeding" terminated in 2011, when the state court of appeals vacated his conviction and remanded for further proceedings in the trial court. Our decision in King v. Harwood, 852 F.3d 568 (6th Cir. 2017), makes clear that the answer is no. There, like here, the state court of appeals set aside King's conviction on post-conviction review and remanded her case to the trial court. The trial court later dismissed the charges against her. King thereafter brought a § 1983 claim that (as here) we analogized to a malicious-prosecution claim for purposes of accrual. Id. at 579. That claim did not accrue "[w]hen the Kentucky Court of Appeals granted King relief, " we held, because the court's decision "did not result immediately in a termination of the criminal proceeding in favor of the accused[.]" Id. (internal quotation marks and ellipses omitted). Instead King's claim accrued only when her criminal proceeding in fact ended, which occurred "when King's indictment was dismissed[.]" Id. ...

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