Malicious Prosecution Claims – Statute of Limitations

A conviction in a criminal case, even if a post-conviction appeal is pending, does not satisfy the element of a “prior action [being] finally terminated in favor of plaintiff” for the purpose of a malicious prosecution claim.

In Moffitt v. McPeake, No. W2016-01706-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 10, 2017), plaintiff had been convicted of aggravated assault against the three defendants in a previous criminal case on July 31, 2014. On appeal, his conviction was affirmed in part and reversed in part, and plaintiff pointed out in arguments to the trial court that he had a “pending post-conviction appeal.”

The trial court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment pursuant to the applicable one-year statute of limitations. The trial court ruled that the limitations period began to run when plaintiff was arrested on May 16, 2013, and that his July 27, 2015 suit was thus untimely. The Court of Appeals rejected this ground for dismissal but affirmed on other grounds.

To succeed on a malicious prosecution action in Tennessee, a plaintiff must show “(1) a prior suit or judicial proceeding was brought against plaintiff without probable cause, (2) defendant brought such prior action with malice, and (3) the prior action was finally terminated in favor of plaintiff.” Here, the Court of Appeals determined that the case should be dismissed due to plaintiff’s inability to show the third element. The Court stated that there was “nothing in the record to show that [plaintiff’s] criminal case has been finally terminated in his favor” because his conviction had not been overturned. The Court found that the case should be dismissed without prejudice and held that “[i]f [plaintiff] prevails in his post-conviction case and his conviction is overturned, he can refile his civil suit for malicious prosecution.”

Regarding the statute of limitations, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court incorrectly ruled that the one-year period should be counted from the time of arrest. The Court explained that “an action for malicious prosecution cannot be maintained until the termination of the original action in the plaintiff’s favor, and the cause of action does not accrue until that point.” (internal citation omitted). The arrest, then, was not an event that would trigger the running of the statute of limitations.

When considering a malicious prosecution action, it’s important to pay close attention to the required elements, especially the requirement that a prior action be decided in plaintiff’s favor. Further, as this case shows, this element can affect when the statute of limitations begins to run.