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Watkins v. Healy

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

December 19, 2019

LEDURA WATKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
ROBERT H. HEALY, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT ROBERT H. HEALY'S MOTION FOR RECONSIDERATION (ECF NO. 49)

          MATTHEW F. LEITMAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         In 1976, Plaintiff Ledura Watkins was convicted of first-degree murder in state court and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In 2017, the state trial court vacated Watkins' conviction. Later that year, Watkins filed this civil-rights action against Defendant Robert H. Healy, a former state-court prosecutor, and others. Watkins alleges that Healy violated his (Watkins') rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments by fabricating evidence against him and maliciously prosecuting him. Healy previously moved to dismiss Watkins' claims on the grounds that they are barred by the statute of limitations and by prosecutorial immunity. (See Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 34.) The Court denied that motion. (See Op. and Order, ECF No. 47.) Healy now moves the Court to reconsider its rulings on his limitations and immunity defenses. (See Mot. for Reconsid., ECF No. 49.) The motion raises several serious arguments in a thoughtful manner, and the Court has carefully considered Healy's contentions. However, the Court remains convinced that its earlier ruling was correct. Accordingly, for the reasons explained in detail below, Healy's motion for reconsideration is DENIED.

         I

         The Court's earlier Opinion and Order set forth in great detail the background facts, the allegations in Watkins' Amended Complaint, and the Court's analysis of Healy's limitations and immunity defenses. The Court will not repeat those matters here. For the purposes of this Opinion and Order, the Court assumes that the reader will have already carefully reviewed the Court's prior ruling. For ease of reference, though, the Court will repeat the claims Watkins brings against Healy. Those claims are:

• Fabrication of evidence in violation of the Fourth Amendment (Count I);
• Fabrication of Evidence in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (Count II); . Malicious Prosecution in violation of the Fourth Amendment (Count III);
• Civil Conspiracy in violation of the Fourth Amendment (Count VIII); . Civil Conspiracy in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment (Count IX); and . Common law Malicious Prosecution (Count XV).

         II

         Healy first argues that the Court should have dismissed Watkins' constitutional claims as barred by the applicable three-year statute of limitations. The Court held that the claims were not time-barred because (1) they did not accrue until the state trial court vacated Watkins' conviction in 2017 and (2) Watkins filed this action within three years of that event. Healy now counters that “under the legal precedent from the relevant era” - which Healy defines as the caselaw existing in 1975 and 1976 - Watkins' constitutional claims accrued decades before Watkins' conviction was vacated. (See Mot. for Reconsid., ECF No. 49, PageID.10088-10095.) Thus, Healy insists that the three-year statute of limitations expired long before Watkins filed this action. The Court disagrees.

         There are two problems with Healy's argument. First, he misidentifies the “relevant era.” The accrual of Watkins' constitutional claims must be assessed under Supreme Court and Sixth Circuit precedent from the current era because those decisions apply retroactively to the events that impacted Watkins in 1975-1976. And under current law, it is clear that Watkins' constitutional claims against Healy did not accrue until the state trial court vacated Watkins' conviction in 2017. Second (and in any event), Healy erroneously characterizes the law of accrual during what he defines as the “relevant era.” Contrary to Healy's contention, even under the law as it then existed, Watkins' constitutional claims did not accrue until his conviction was vacated.

         A

         Two Supreme Court decisions - Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994) and McDonough v. Smith, 139 S.Ct. 2149 (2019) - compel the conclusion that Watkins' Due Process fabrication of evidence claim did not accrue until his conviction was vacated and that that claim is thus not time-barred. Below, the Court explains how Heck and McDonough require that conclusion and why they apply to Watkins' Due Process fabrication of evidence claim even though they were decided long after the events underlying that claim.

         1

         a

         In Heck, the Supreme Court adopted a delayed-accrual rule for certain types of claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Under that rule, “a cause of action under § 1983 that would imply the invalidity of a conviction does not accrue until the conviction is reversed or expunged, and therefore the statute of limitations does not begin to run until such an event occurs, if ever.” D'Ambrosio v. Marino, 747 F.3d 378, 384 (6th Cir. 2014) (describing holding in Heck). The delayed-accrual rule from Heck applies to Watkins' Due Process fabrication of evidence claim because that claim implies the invalidity of his conviction.[1] (See, e.g., Am. Compl. at ¶123, ECF No. .30, PageID.7517 - alleging that fabrication of evidence led to, and invalidated, Watkins' conviction.) And under that rule, the claim did not accrue until the state trial court vacated Watkins' conviction in 2017.[2]

         b

         Under the Supreme Court's decision in Harper v. Virginia Dep't of Taxation, 509 U.S. 86 (1993), this Court must apply Heck to Watkins' Due Process fabrication of evidence claim even though Heck was decided nearly twenty years after both Healy's alleged misconduct and Watkins' conviction. In Harper, the Supreme Court held that when it “applies a rule of federal law to the parties before it, that rule is the controlling interpretation of federal law and must be given full retroactive effect in all cases still open on direct review and as to all events, regardless of whether such events predate or postdate our announcement of the rule.” 509 U.S. at 97 (emphasis added).

         Heck satisfies Harper's two requirements for retroactive application. First, Heck's delayed-accrual rule is a rule of federal law. See Collyer v. Darling, 98 F.3d 211, 220 (6th Cir. 1996) (explaining that “federal law determines the accrual of civil rights claims” under § 1983). Second, the Supreme Court in Heck applied the rule that it adopted to the parties before it. See Heck, 512 U.S. at 490 (“Applying these principles to the present action … we find that dismissal of the action was correct.”) Because Heck satisfies the Harper test for retroactive application, Heck applies to “all events, ” including those that “predate” its “announcement.” Harper, 509 U.S. at 97. Thus, Heck's delayed-accrual rule applies to the events underlying Watkins' Due Process fabrication of evidence claim even though those events occurred long before the Supreme Court decided Heck.

         Indeed, the Sixth Circuit has applied Heck's delayed-accrual rule to events that transpired many years before the Supreme Court decided Heck. See Harrison v. State of Michigan, 722 F.3d 768 (6th Cir. 2013). In Harrison, the plaintiff was convicted of two crimes and sentenced to consecutive terms of imprisonment in 1986. The plaintiff was released in 1990 after he had served the statutory maximum term for the offenses of conviction. Following plaintiff's release from prison, he filed a collateral attack on his sentences in state court. After lengthy proceedings, a state appellate court held in 2008 that the plaintiff had been improperly sentenced. In 2010, the plaintiff brought § 1983 claims alleging that a portion of his confinement had been unlawful. The district court held that the claims were time-barred. But the Sixth Circuit held that the claims were subject to Heck's delayed-accrual rule and thus were not time-barred even though the alleged constitutional violation took place many years before Heck:

In this case, Harrison's 1986 sentence has, in fact, been “declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination.” That favorable termination occurred when the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed Harrison's sentence in 2008, holding that “[he] was improperly sentenced to consecutive terms for his convictions, ” and remanded the case for entry of a corrected judgment. People v. Harrison, 2008 WL 4276544, at *1. Harrison then filed the instant § 1983 suit in 2010, within Michigan's three-year statute of limitations. As a result, this federal action is not untimely.
[….]
[T]he district court observed that Harrison knew of his “false imprisonment” while incarcerated on the 1986 conviction and, therefore, that the statute of limitations in his case began to run in 1990, when he was released from imprisonment. But that analysis by the district court mixes apples with oranges and cannot be correct, because we know from Heck that a damages claim for a wrongful criminal conviction or sentence does not accrue until the conviction “has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination, or called into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus.” Heck, 512 U.S. at 487, 114 S.Ct. 2364. Thus, if Harrison had brought a § 1983 suit in 1990 when released from prison on the 1986 conviction, it would necessarily have been dismissed for failure to state a claim, because Harrison's 1986 conviction had not yet been reversed or his sentence corrected. That did not happen until the Michigan Court of Appeals ordered the state trial court to take such action in 2008. Before that date, any claim that Harrison might have alleged asserting the invalidity of his 1986 conviction, regardless of the relief sought, would have been - in the words of the Heck Court - “not cognizable under § 1983” for lack of a favorable termination. Id.

Harrison, 722 F.3d at 772-73 (emphasis in original). Many other federal courts have likewise applied Heck's delayed-accrual rule to events that occurred long before Heck was decided and to cases that were not pending when Heck was decided. See, e.g., Cannon v. Burge, 2006 WL 273544, at **8-9 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 2, 2006) (holding under Heck that several § 1983 claims based upon alleged police misconduct in 1983 did not accrue until the charges against the plaintiff were finally dismissed in 2004); Brinson v. City of Philadelphia, 2012 WL 975073, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 21, 2012) (explaining that under Heck, plaintiff's § 1983 claim based upon alleged prosecutorial misconduct in 1986 accrued when plaintiff obtained certain relief from the conviction in 2007); Dick v. Carpenter, 2003 WL 1563732, at ** 1-2 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 17, 2003) (holding under Heck that § 1983 claims based upon alleged police misconduct underlying a conviction in 1983 accrued in 2001 when the plaintiff's conviction was vacated); Hall v. City of Los Angeles, 2013 WL 12349587, at *4 (C.D. Cal. Apr. 1, 2013) (holding under Heck that § 1983 conviction based upon alleged law enforcement misconduct in the mid-1980's did not accrue until the plaintiff's conviction was vacated nearly twenty years later).[3] The Court is persuaded that Harper requires retroactive application of Heck to the events underlying Watkins' Due Process fabrication of evidence claim.[4]

         c.

         Healy counters with a narrow reading of Harper. He contends that Harper only requires retroactive application of a Supreme Court decision to cases that were pending on direct review when the decision was issued. (See Healy Supp. Br., ECF No.52, PageID.10188.) And he says that Harper does not require retroactive application of Heck here because this case was not pending when Heck was decided.

         Harper, itself, belies this argument in two respects. First, Harper says that a Supreme Court decision must be applied retroactively to both “cases still open on direct review” and to “all events, regardless of whether such events predate or postdate” the Supreme Court's decision. Harper, 509 U.S. at 97. Thus, the plain language of Harper shows that its retroactivity rule is not limited to cases that are pending on direct review. Second, in Harper, the Supreme Court applied one of its earlier decisions retroactively even though Harper itself was not pending on direct review - indeed, had not even been filed - when the earlier decision was issued.[5]The actions of the Supreme Court in Harper - in addition to the Supreme Court's words in that case - thus confirm a decision of the Supreme Court applies retroactively even to cases that were not pending when the decision was issued. In sum, as another federal court has aptly observed, “the apparent rule of retroactivity [from Harper] is that if an event is not yet in litigation, or if a litigated case is not yet final, then the rule will be applied retroactively.” Hoffman v. GEICO Ins. Co., 2006 WL 2925265, at *8 (D. Mont. Oct. 5, 2006).[6] Healy's far narrower reading of Harper is not faithful to the language or result of that decision.

         Notably, Healy has not cited a single case in which any federal court has declined to apply Heck retroactively under circumstances like those presented in this case. He cites only one case in which a federal court refused to apply Heck retroactively - Johnson v. City of Cheyenne, 2017 WL 6551394 (D. Wyo. July 27, 2017). (See Healy Supp. Br., ECF No. 52, PageID.10198-10202, citing and discussing Johnson). But Johnson involved fundamentally different circumstances, and the court in Johnson did not suggest that Heck was limited to cases pending on direct review when Heck was decided.

         The plaintiff in Johnson was convicted of certain crimes in 1989. In 1991, the plaintiff filed a § 1983 action in which he alleged that misconduct by police and prosecutors led to his wrongful conviction. A federal district court dismissed that action with prejudice on the merits, and the Tenth Circuit affirmed the dismissal. In 1992, the plaintiff filed a second § 1983 action in which he alleged that false testimony by a police officer led to his conviction. A federal district court dismissed he second action, and the Tenth Circuit again affirmed. “Accordingly, both of the lawsuits” brought by the plaintiff in 1991 and 1992 “resulted in a final judgment on the merits of [the plaintiff's] claims.” Johnson, 2017 WL 6551394, at *7. Nearly twenty years later, in 2013, DNA testing proved the plaintiff's innocence, and he was declared actually innocent by a court order issued on August 7, 2013. See Id. at *4. The plaintiff then filed a third § 1983 action in 2017 in which he alleged that still more law enforcement misconduct led to his wrongful conviction.

         The law enforcement defendants moved to dismiss the third action as barred by res judicata. The plaintiff countered that res judicata did not bar his third set of claims because, under Heck, the claims did not accrue until he had been declared innocent by court order in 2013. The plaintiff insisted that “Heck should be applied retroactively….” I d. at *8. The court declined to apply Heck retroactively because doing so would have effectively voided the res judicata effect of the two earlier merits judgments:

Thus, even if Heck applied retroactively to events predating the announcement of that rule of federal law, Plaintiff has cited no authority to support the proposition that Heck can be applied retroactively to disregard the res judicata effect of final judgments already entered on his § 1983 claims. Indeed, the Supreme Court has recognized, ‘retroactivity in civil cases must be limited by finality; once suit is barred by res judicata …, a new rule cannot reopen the door already closed.'

Id. (quoting James B. Beam Distilling Co. v. Georgia, 501 U.S. 529, 541 (1991) (plurality opinion)).

         As this passage makes clear, the court in Johnson simply applied a well-settled exception to the retroactivity rule established in Harper - the exception barring retroactive application of decisions to cases in which a final judgment has been entered and all direct appeals have been exhausted. See Reynoldsville Casket Co. v. Hyde, 514 U.S. 749, 758 (1995) (explaining that “[n]ew legal principles, even when applied retroactively, do not apply to cases already closed” and that this is “a limitation inherent in the principle [of retroactivity] itself”) Johnson did not hold, as a general matter, that Heck applies retroactively only to cases that were pending when Heck was decided. On the contrary, the court acknowledged the possibility that Heck could apply retroactively to “events predating” its issuance so long as such application would not undermine an otherwise final judgment. Johnson, 2017 WL 6551394, at *8 (“even if Heck applied retroactively to events predating the announcement of that rule of federal law….”) Thus, Johnson does not support Healy's contention that Heck cannot apply retroactively to Watkins' claims.

         Finally, Healy argues that Heck should not apply retroactively for the same reasons that statutes do not apply retroactively. In Healy's words, the Court should be guided by principles concerning the retroactive application of statutes because “the great majority of federal case law interpreting retroactively derives from the statutory context.” (Healy Supp. Br., ECF No. 52 at PageID.10189.) And Healy urges the Court to analogize retroactive application of Heck to retroactive application of a Michigan statute of limitations, which, according to Healy, would not be permitted under the circumstances of this action. (See id., citing decisions of the Michigan Court of Appeals concerning Michigan statutes of limitations).

         This line of argument is flawed in two important respects. First, there is a “major difference” between principles governing the retroactive application of statutes and the retroactive application of judicial decisions. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc. v. Dolgencorp, LLC, 881 F.3d 835, 847 (11th Cir. 2018). Indeed, “[t]he principle that statutes operate only prospectively, while judicial decisions operate retrospectively, is familiar to every law student.” United States v. Security Indus. Bank, 459 U.S. 70, 79 (1982). Thus, the fact that statutes often do not apply retroactively says little, if anything, about whether judicial decisions should apply retroactively. Second, Healy's analogy to a state statute of limitations is misplaced because the issue before this Court relates to the accrual of Watkins' Due Process fabrication of evidence claim under § 1983, and the accrual of that claim is a matter of federal law. See, e.g., Collyer, 98 F.3d at 220 (explaining that while § 1983 borrow state statutes of limitations, the accrual of those claims is governed by federal law). Simply put, whether a Michigan statute of limitations (or any other such statute) does or does not apply retroactively is not germane to the question of whether Heck applies retroactively.

         In sum, Healy has failed to demonstrate that Heck does not apply retroactively to Watkins' Due Process fabrication of evidence ...


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