In a 2-1 ruling, the Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of the clinic’s client, Lee O. Wilson, in his bid to recover damages from the State of Virginia for unconstitutional imprisonment. The case turned on the disputed question of whether such a claim can be recognized after he had been released from jail if he did not first successfully challenge his incarceration in a habeas action.
Sachin Bansal, Virginia Duke, Catherine Tucker, Kish Vinayagamoorthy, and Katherine Crawford, all members of the Class of 2008, briefed the case, which Crawford argued on March 18. Professors James Coleman and Erwin Chemerinsky supervised the team.
Having been incarcerated after pleading guilty to being an accessory after the fact in the grand larceny of a motor vehicle, Wilson’s claim for damages for unconstitutional imprisonment arose after the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) delayed his scheduled release from prison by almost three months. His grievances filed with the prison administration disputing the delay remained unresolved by the time he was released and launched his action for damages.
The district court dismissed Wilson’s claim sua sponte, however, citing the Supreme Court’s 1994 ruling in Heck v. Humphrey, which held that a prisoner challenging the legality of a sentence must bring a habeas action prior to bringing a civil rights claim for damages.
On Wilson’s behalf, the clinic students argued that a habeas action would have been inappropriate because he wasn’t seeking release from custody. Judges Roger L. Gregory and M. Blane Michael on the Fourth Circuit panel that heard the appeal agreed, and remanded the case back to District Court for hearing on the merits. David R. Hansen, Senior Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, sitting by designation, dissented.
The ruling that a habeas action is not an absolute requirement to a law suit at issue in this appeal is significant. Coleman noted that a circuit split is emerging among various appellate courts on the issue, raising the possibility that it could eventually be decided by the Supreme Court.
“Conceptually this was a difficult issue,” said Coleman, the John S. Bradway Professor of the Practice of Law, adding that the professors who mooted the case before Crawford argued, including Dean David F. Levi, a former federal judge, were skeptical Wilson would win the appeal. “But the students kept at the argument until they were satisfied that they had it right. It was gratifying to learn that a majority of the panel agreed with the students’ judgment.”
“It was an honor to be part of the team that worked on this case,” said Crawford. “We are all very excited about the outcome, but the most rewarding part of the experience was having the opportunity to work with a lawyer like Professor Coleman. I think we learned lessons that will last our entire careers.”