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Thomas v. Eschen

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

June 27, 2019

Clay Irwin Thomas Plaintiff - Appellant
Scott Eschen; Kathy Eschen; Greg Ort; Garry Keller Defendants - Appellees

          Submitted: January 16, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa - Des Moines

          Before LOKEN, GRASZ, and STRAS, Circuit Judges.


         Clay Thomas, an Iowa state prisoner, claims that prison officials violated his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights when they had him civilly committed and forcibly medicated. Because Thomas's wrongful-commitment claim "is not cognizable under [42 U.S.C.] § 1983," Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 487 (1994), and his forced-medication claim lacks evidentiary support, we affirm the district court's[1] grant of summary judgment dismissing both claims.


         Iowa prison officials successfully applied to have Thomas civilly committed in 2013. See In re C.I.T. (Thomas I), No. 14-0760, 2015 WL 576172, at *1-2 (Iowa Ct. App. Feb. 11, 2015) (unpublished). Since then, Iowa courts have repeatedly extended his civil commitment based on evidence that he is "seriously mentally impaired" and poses a danger to himself and others. See, e.g., id.; In re C.I.T. (Thomas II), 885 N.W.2d 830, 2016 WL 4036244, at *1 (Iowa Ct. App. July 27, 2016) (unpublished); cf. In re C.T. (Thomas III), No. 18-0320, 2018 WL 6706242, at *1 (Iowa Ct. App. Dec. 19, 2018) (unpublished) (affirming on procedural grounds). In particular, these decisions have emphasized Thomas's misbehavior in prison, including incidents in which he "stood up and pushed a table at a staff member," Thomas I, 2015 WL 576172, at *1, and "was involved in a physical altercation with another inmate," Thomas II, 2016 WL 4036244, at *1.

         Meanwhile, in 2016, Thomas brought a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against several prison officials for "improperly civilly committ[ing]" him. His theory was that they misrepresented what he did in prison and, at certain points, had actually "encouraged" him to misbehave, which they then used to justify his civil commitment. Once he was committed, Thomas alleges, the officials had him forcibly medicated, which has "caused . . . significant emotional and mental harm." The district court dismissed Thomas's claims on summary judgment. Our review of its decision is de novo. See Allard v. Baldwin, 779 F.3d 768, 771 (8th Cir. 2015).


         Thomas's principal claim is that civilly committing him violated his constitutional rights. Although Thomas does not challenge the constitutionality of Iowa's civil-commitment system in the abstract, he complains that prison officials had him wrongfully committed through deception and manipulation.

         Thomas's claim, however, collides with the rule from Heck v. Humphrey. In Heck, the Supreme Court held that a claim for damages is "not cognizable under § 1983" if it would undermine a still-valid state criminal judgment. 512 U.S. at 486- 87. To be sure, Thomas's claim involves a civil-commitment order, not a criminal conviction, and neither this court nor the Supreme Court has applied Heck in this particular context, at least in a published decision.[2] Cf. id. at 486 (invoking "the hoary principle that civil tort actions are not appropriate vehicles for challenging the validity of outstanding criminal judgments" (emphasis added)). Even so, Heck's logic reaches Thomas's wrongful-commitment claim too.

         Heck addressed a state prisoner's allegations that officials involved in his prosecution had conducted an unlawful investigation, destroyed exculpatory materials, and introduced illegal evidence at his trial. Id. at 479. Relying on the premise that "the common law of torts . . . provide[s] the appropriate starting point for the inquiry under [section 1983]," the Supreme Court "analog[ized] [the prisoner's] claims" to the closest "common-law cause of action" it could find: malicious prosecution. Id. at 483-84 (citation omitted); cf. Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30, 34 (1983) (interpreting section 1983 in light of both modern tort law and tort law as it existed in 1871-the year Congress enacted the statute). It then reasoned that, because "[o]ne element that must be alleged and proved in a malicious prosecution action is termination of the prior criminal proceeding in favor of the accused," the prisoner's still-valid conviction meant that his claims were "not cognizable under § 1983." Heck, 512 U.S. at 484, 487. A contrary rule, the Court explained, posed the risk of having "parallel litigation" leading to "two conflicting resolutions arising out of the same or identical transaction," which would undermine both "finality and consistency." Id. at 484-85 (citation omitted).

         The same is true in this case. Iowa courts have extended Thomas's commitment several times since he filed his section 1983 action, so the risk of parallel litigation is not just hypothetical here. See, e.g., Thomas II, 2016 WL 4036244, at *1; Thomas III, 2018 WL 6706242, at *1. And as in Heck, Thomas is trying to use section 1983 to bring what is essentially a malicious-prosecution claim.

         Courts have long recognized that individuals like Thomas can sue those who pursue "unfounded proceedings . . . to have [them] declared insane" for malicious prosecution, even if the proceedings are "not criminal in their nature." Thomas M. Cooley, A Treatise on the Law of Torts 188 (1879); accord 1 Fowler V. Harper et al., Harper, James and Gray on Torts 525-26 (3d ed. 2006); W. Page Keeton et al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts 890 (5th ed. 1984); see also, e.g., Lockenour v. Sides, 57 Ind. 360, 364-65 (1877) (authorizing an action against defendants who, "maliciously and without probable cause," brought "proceedings to procure the plaintiff to be found insane").[3] Those who "institute[] and carr[y] on" such proceedings are liable for any false representations they make about the victim's competency. Lockenour, 57 Ind. at 360, 364; accord Keeton et al., supra, at 893 (explaining that the victim may sue anyone who "play[ed] a major role in instigating the [malicious] action"); see also, e.g., Reade v. Halpin, 193 A.D. 566, 569-70 (N.Y.App.Div. ...

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