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Malicious Prosecution Conspiracy Theory Meets Pleading Standard

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By William Peacock, Esq. on July 03, 2013 4:01 PM

Michael Alexander, an Indiana attorney, recently found himself in a near-familiar place: the defendant’s side of the courtroom. This time, however, he wasn’t the attorney. He was accused of bribing witnesses to provide favorable testimony on his clients’ behalf. Though he was acquitted after only an hour of deliberations, his investigator was later convicted of a related offense.

According to Alexander, not only was he innocent, but the entire fiasco was the result of a grudge by Indiana state prosecutor Mark McKinney, who conspired with two FBI agents to fabricate some evidence, destroy other evidence, and attempt unsuccessfully to frame him for a bribery scheme that he played no part in. Alexander had previously criticized McKinney for his work on a City of Muncie/Delaware County Drug Task Force.

After his acquittal, Alexander sued under the Federal Tort Claims Act for malicious prosecution and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The district court dismissed his claims via FRCP 12(b)(6), finding that the malicious prosecution claims did not meet FRCP 8 pleading standards as modified by Twombley and Iqbal and that the IIED claim was barred by the Tort Claims Act's two-year statute of limitations.

The Seventh Circuit, last week, reversed, finding first that despite the malicious prosecution claim being mildly outlandish, it met the minimal pleading standards as set by the Supreme Court.

After noting that the lower court's decision was based, in part, on a finding that Alexander had not pled facts establishing a motive for the FBI agents' involvement in the conspiracy, the court stated,

"The notion that federal agents would participate in a retaliatory prosecution by fabricating evidence and committing perjury is surely a shocking one, and the district court may simply have found the allegations too difficult to credit, at least absent additional allegations to suggest some sort of motive. But Rule 8 does not demand that a plaintiff prove his case at the outset of the litigation, nor does it demand that a plaintiff come to court ready to plead facts ... that he has no way of knowing prior to discovery."

Another case, another example of why the not-quite-fact, not-quite-notice federal pleading standard needs further clarification.

As for that IIED claim, the lower court held that Alexander should have been on notice of the defendants' actions as of the time they testified (allegedly falsely) about the lack of existence of exculpatory evidence.

Conversely, the Seventh Circuit held that the alleged conduct was ongoing, and some events occurred within two years of the commencement of the lawsuit. Even had the events not been part of one long conspiracy, some actions that could independently sustain an IIED claim happened within two years.

There is one hint of good news for the defendants, however. The court repeatedly reminded us that the pleading standard is very lenient. Today's holding reinstates Alexander's claims, and allows him to proceed to discovery. It does not, in any way, reflect a likelihood of victory on the merits of the case.

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