For the second year in a row, students and a professor from the University of St. Thomas Appellate Clinic have won an appeal they briefed and argued before judges in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on behalf of a pro bono client.
Law students Lindsay Lien Rinholen and Colin Seaborg presented oral argument on April 7 in Seattle on behalf of their client, Chet Wilson, who had brought a civil rights suit against Oregon correctional officials for wrongfully returning him to prison for seven months based on false charges that he had violated disciplinary rules for transitional release. Those charges were later dismissed by a prison hearing officer as having no evidentiary support. But the District Court dismissed Wilson’s lawsuit as having been filed too late under the statute of limitations. Wilson’s appeal on the statute of limitations was accepted pro bono by UST School of Law’s Appellate Clinic.
On April 15, the Court of Appeals vacated the dismissal of the civil rights suit under appeal, remanding the case to the District Court for further proceedings.
On appeal, Lien Rinholen and Seaborg explained to the Court of Appeals that a civil rights action for wrongful confinement cannot be filed until after a prisoner has successfully sought other remedies, including use of prison administrative procedures, to obtain release. In this case, Wilson repeatedly demanded a hearing after being returned to the prison, which was only granted to him after multiple delays. The disciplinary charges were finally dismissed, and he was released in December 2010. Accordingly, the students argued, Wilson’s lawsuit filed in November 2012 came within the two-year statute of limitations.
During the argument, Lien Rinholen and Seaborg answered several questions from the judges about the timing of civil rights suits involving former prisoner. The students cited to the leading decisions and displayed a thorough knowledge of the complicated intersection of the civil rights statute and the federal habeas corpus statute. On the question of which of the two events – the prison hearing resulting in dismissal of the disciplinary charges or the later release from prison – started the clock for the statute of limitations, both students emphasized that Wilson’s complaint was filed within two years of either event. They further explained that, as a matter of the legal theory set by the Supreme Court on the question in the leading case of Heck v. Humphrey, the later release date likely triggers the “cognizability” of the civil rights suit because the alternative of habeas corpus relief disappears when a person is no longer confined.
At the close of the argument, the judges thanked the students and UST School of Law for their pro bono representation.
In the April 15 decision, the Court of Appeals agreed that Heck v. Humphrey sets the rule and that the claims then would not have accrued until Wilson was released in December 2010. The Court observed that, with a two-year statute of limitations, “Wilson’s complaint alleging claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 was filed within two years of his release from confinement.”
The Appellate Clinic is led by Professor Gregory Sisk, Laghi Distinguished Chair in Law.