The plaintiff Yasmine Coello was convicted of harassment in 2007. Over a decade later, she was successful in having her conviction vacated. Within two years later, she filed a civil rights action to recover for various abuses she alleged to have suffered during her criminal proceedings. The issue in Coello v. DiLeo, 43 F.4th 346 (3d Cir. 2022) was whether the plaintiff timely filed her civil rights lawsuit.
This case had many twists and turns, stemming from a private citizen complaint filed by Shirley Messina in January 2007 in Municipal Court. She accused plaintiff Coello, who at the time was dating Messina’s former boyfriend with whom Messina had a child, of harassment. At that time, Coello appeared in court, pled not guilty and the charge was dismissed.
However, for some unknown reason, in February 2007, private attorney Kathleen Estabrooks submitted an affidavit to the municipal Judge Louis DiLeo requesting that she be appointed to prosecute Messina’s complaint against Coello. Her application was granted, despite the fact that the prosecution did not involve a cross-complaint. Her affidavit failed to mention that she was also representing Messina in custody and other civil actions against Coello’s boyfriend, circumstances that could clearly bear on Estabrooks ability to prosecute Coello’s case impartially.
Without recording any findings as to the need for a private prosecutor or the suitability of Estabrooks for the role, Judge DiLeo approved her to serve as acting prosecutor. The matter proceeded to a bench trial. There were other irregularities, including Judge DiLeo having Coello removed from the court room while the prosecution witnesses testified and then examining Coello himself when she took the stand in her own defense. Ultimately, he found her guilty on the harassment charge and sentenced her to 30 days in jail but suspended that sentence on the condition that she attend 26 weeks of anger-management counseling.
In the next year, a post-trial hearing was held. At the hearing, Judge DiLeo noted that he recently received a letter from Estabrooks stating that her client, Ms. Messina had been forced to file another complaint against Ms. Coello for assault. She asked whether Ms. Coello had completed her anger management course as sentenced by the judge. Coello attended that hearing without counsel. Estabrooks also attended but entered her appearance as private counsel for Messina. There was no municipal prosecutor present. Instead, Judge DiLeo allegedly assumed that role without inquiring into Coello’s lack of representation.
Coello explained at that time that she had a few weeks of anger management remaining but was having trouble scheduling it due to her new job. Estabrooks urged DiLeo to send Coello to jail and he agreed, reinstating her thirty day jail term. He did not address any aggravating or mitigating factors. Instead, she was immediately incarcerated.
While in jail, Coello hired an attorney who moved for reconsideration. DiLeo did not schedule argument until 14 days into her jail sentence. The facts were unclear whether that argument ever took place but Coello was released from jail after having been incarcerated for 18 days.
Nine years later, in November 2016, Coello filed a counseled application for post-conviction relief in New Jersey state court. She asked for her harassment conviction to be vacated, arguing that the underlying proceedings were subject to a host of legal errors. The State did not oppose Coello’s application having by that time being familiar with allegations of judicial misconduct lodged against Judge DiLeo. With no objection from the State, the Court granted Coello’s application for post-conviction relief and vacated her conviction.
A little under two years later, Coello filed the within federal civil rights action in the District Court of New Jersey, naming multiple defendants including Estabrooks, her law firm, Judge DiLeo, Linden’s former mayor, its former prosecutor and the City of Linden. She filed claims under §1983 and alleged a Sixth Amendment claim that certain Linden defendants violated her rights to counsel, to confront witnesses, and to a fair trial. She also alleged a number of other constitutional violations.
The Estabrooks and Linden defendants each moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that certain of the defendants were entitled to immunity, the claims were legally deficient and they were time barred. The District Court considered only the timeliness argument against the Linden defendants. It found that Coello believed that she was wrongfully sentenced in January 2008 and that she had a complete and present cause of action for which she could have filed suit and obtained relief at that time. Because she did not file suit until 2020, the District Court concluded that her claims against these defendants were untimely, dismissing all claims against the Linden defendants.
Upon appeal, the Third Circuit noted that a §1983 claim, like any other civil cause of action, must be filed within a certain time frame. This time frame is called the statute of limitations and its purpose is to prevent plaintiffs from “reviving claims that have been allowed to slumber until evidence has been lost, memories have faded, and witnesses have disappeared.” The Court pointed out that a claim not filed within the applicable limitations, would generally be dismissed as untimely. In this case, the plaintiff had two years to file this lawsuit. The issue is when her two year deadline began to run.
The Court analyzed this time period under tort law. The tort claim that most closely resembled this type of matter would be the common law tort of malicious prosecution. A key element of a malicious prosecution claim is that the plaintiff “cannot recover unless and until the underlying criminal proceedings terminate in his or her favor.” Similarly, when one is suing for an alleged unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, the “plaintiff must prove that the conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination, are called into question by a federal court’s issuance of a writ of habeas corpus.”
Here, the Third Circuit pointed out that the favorable determination requirement was met on February 26, 2018 when the state court vacated Plaintiff’s criminal conviction. She brought this lawsuit within two years of that date. Hence, her §1983 claims were timely filed. While Coello may have known she was wronged by the Linden defendants’ alleged misconduct at the time of her criminal prosecution, her current claims, all of which attack the validity of those state proceedings, did not exist until her harassment conviction was vacated. Accordingly, the Third Circuit reversed the District Court decision, dismissing the claim as to the Linden defendants, and remanded it back for the District Court to consider the other arguments made by the Linden defendants in support of their motion to dismiss.