August 20, 2021

Firm wins major victory for civil rights plaintiffs in Second Circuit

Today, in a major appellate victory for civil rights plaintiffs, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reinstated the lawsuit of our client Andrew Smalls. Adopting our arguments wholesale, the Court issued a decision that will ease the path for plaintiffs to bring federal lawsuits alleging that police officers fabricated evidence. Law360 reported on the case here.

At issue in the case, Smalls v. City of New York, was whether such a plaintiff must prove he won his state criminal case in a manner that proved his innocence. Because our legal system does not require the accused to prove their innocence, but rather puts the burden on the prosecution to prove guilt, few criminal cases are resolved with a finding of innocence. In our case, Mr. Smalls’s conviction was reversed on appeal because the police had illegally stopped him. He filed a lawsuit, and a federal jury found that the police had fabricated the evidence against him. But the federal trial judge then dismissed the case because the state appellate court had not indicated in its decision that Mr. Smalls was innocent.

In today’s decision, the Second Circuit reversed the district court. It held that there is no requirement that the underlying criminal proceedings end in a way indicative of innocence before bringing a civil rights lawsuit alleging evidence fabrication. The court agreed with us that police officers who fabricate evidence and thus corrupt the justice system must be held accountable regardless of whether the victim of such fabrication proved his innocence in the underlying criminal proceeding. In so doing, it abrogated a slew of recent opinions from district courts in the Second Circuit holding that plaintiffs alleging evidence fabrication must meet the “favorable-termination” requirement of malicious-prosecution cases.

Firm principal Joel Rudin argued this appeal back in March, after being retained by Mr. Smalls and his trial attorney, Jon Norinsberg. Mr. Rudin and associates Jacob Loup and Matthew Wasserman wrote the briefs (read the opening brief here and the reply brief here). The Circuit’s decision affirmed our interpretation of the Supreme Court’s recent holding in McDonough v. Smith, 139 S. Ct. 2149 (2019), a case in which Mr. Rudin was co-counsel.