McDonough v. Smith: Why SCOTUS Should Revisit the Statute of Limitations for Fabrication of Evidence

By the time Annie Dookhan was finally caught in 2012, she had been falsifying drug test results at a state crime laboratory in Massachusetts for several years. The rogue chemist had managed a productivity rate 500% higher than her peers by not actually running tests at all, and her misconduct would ultimately impact over 36,000 criminal cases.

Dookhan is not alone – fabricated evidence is far more common than it may seem, and it can impact thousands of people falsely accused of crimes. The legal remedy for this misconduct is known as a Section 1983 lawsuit, but a significant decision by the Second Circuit in McDonough v. Smith would sharply limit when those lawsuits could be filed. This case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which recently agreed to hear the case. On March 4, 2019, Cause of Action Institute filed an amicus curiae brief urging the court to overturn the Second Circuit.

The question in front of the Supreme Court is when the countdown begins on the limited amount of time available for filing a claim that fabricated evidence was used (i.e. when the statute of limitations begins to run, also known as when the claims “accrue”). In this case, petitioner Edward McDonough endured two criminal trials for election-related crimes that he was ultimately acquitted of. McDonough now argues that Youel Smith, the prosecutor in his criminal case, fabricated evidence in an attempt to falsely convict him. In response, Smith filed a motion arguing claims related to fabricating evidence accrue when the defendant first becomes aware of the tainted evidence and its improper use.

Several other appellate courts had previously decided that the claim accrued when the criminal proceeding ended in the defendant’s favor. That could mean an acquittal, winning on appeal and having the charges dropped, or other, less-common means of victory. Only after the possibility of criminal charges was gone were courts ready to hear a claim that evidence used to support those charges had been fabricated.

In McDonough’s case, however, the Second Circuit took a different view. Instead of waiting for criminal proceedings to end, they decided that defendants were ready to file lawsuits the moment they became aware that fabricated evidence was being used against them.  The Second Circuit thus granted Smith’s motion to dismiss, leaving McDonough with no legal redress. It was the first appellate court in the country to use this rule, and the decision will result in unfair treatment of defendants and unnecessary complications for prosecutors and judges as well. This is especially true given the level of factual support needed to successfully file a lawsuit under the current Supreme Court precedent.

For someone sitting in an interrogation room, it is impossible to know exactly what is happening when fabricated evidence is first used. Imagine the police just said you were seen leaving the house after a robbery occurred. You know you weren’t there, so why is someone saying that? Are they mistaken? Lying for their own benefit? Or did the police induce them to lie so the case would be closed? Only the last explanation justifies a Section 1983 lawsuit, and asking a defendant in this position to walk directly from the police station to the courthouse (if they are even free to do so) is both unrealistic and against the “complete and present” standard the Second Circuit used to determine if a claim had accrued.

Even if a defendant immediately knew a police officer had fabricated evidence, as recently happened in nearly 2,000 cases in Baltimore, it is almost impossible for a defendant to have enough evidence to successfully file a lawsuit. In two cases decided approximately ten years ago, the Supreme Court raised the bar for what must be included in the initial filing of lawsuits. Mere “conclusions” were not enough; factual support was needed. This is understandable in theory, but someone accused of having drugs in their pocket when they know that pocket was empty has almost nothing to offer but the conclusion that police or prosecutors must be responsible.

There are other problems with the Second Circuit decision, including the possibility that prosecutors being sued will be tempted to punish those filing the lawsuits. At the very least, those prosecutors will have to defend themselves while simultaneously trying to perform their official duties. There are many reasons why having the statute of limitations begin to run earlier is an unwise decision that will prevent government agents from being held accountable for these abuses of power, and we hope the Supreme Court chooses to endorse the rule used by other appellate courts instead of the new approach used by the Second Circuit.

John McGlothlin is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute. Libby Rudolf is a litigation support analyst at Cause of Action Institute.

VA Travel Fraud Shows Even Reformers Can Misuse Government Power

There is little doubt that recent reforms at the Department of Veterans Affairs represent remarkable progress.  Last year saw the appointment of a new head for the agency, David Shulkin, and the passage of legislation giving him the power to start implementing badly-needed changes.  It was a lesson in how persistence can eventually lead to progress, and we recently highlighted it in the Washington Examiner as an overlooked bipartisan success.  Unfortunately, Shulkin is now reminding us of a different lesson: even those who champion reform may misuse government power once they have it.

A new inspector general report documents how Shulkin and his direct subordinates improperly turned a simple business trip in July of last year into a lengthy vacation.  Gifts were inappropriately accepted, government employees were used to plan private excursions, and an e-mail was even faked to justify flying Shulkin’s wife to Europe with him.

The saddest part is this occurred just after Shulkin visited the White House to celebrate the signing of legislation which allowed him to more easily fire VA employees for wrongdoing.  Yet instead of ending VA misconduct, Shulkin was on his way to becoming an example of it as he flew to England to attend a sold-out tennis match at Wimbledon with his wife at no cost to either of them.  She had officially been flown out to watch her husband receive “special recognition” at a dinner, a fiction created by Shulkin’s chief of staff to have $4,000 in airfare covered by taxpayers.  The Wimbledon tickets were from an acquaintance whose employer holds several government contracts.

In the days before the report was issued, Shulkin and his attorney had mounted an aggressive defense of his actions.  That tone changed significantly once the report became public, with Shulkin acknowledging how bad the behavior looked and White House officials saying off the record that Shulkin had been deceptive about the seriousness of the charges.  Yet his willingness to accept responsibility was only partial, as he blamed political appointees for targeting him and suggested that e-mails proving expense fraud by his chief of staff were the result of hacking.

The improbable hacking charge may never amount to much, as the chief of staff retired rather than face punishment.  And while e-mails have shown that Shulkin is indeed being pursued by political appointees in his agency, that does not excuse the fraudulent behavior of his staff.  If anything, the knowledge that rivals are looking to undermine you should be another reason to ensure your office behaves ethically.

The VA is not an easy place to lead, and Shulkin has been a consistent advocate for reform.  But that reform will only stick if he can make sure his own subordinates maintain the standards of behavior that he champions for the VA as a whole.  The agency has long suffered from low morale, as years of unaccountability and understaffing have led to dissatisfied veterans and endless frustration for competent employees.  It will be that much harder to change this environment if the top official is excusing ethical lapses instead of preventing them.

The latest reports indicate that Shulkin will remain in his position despite what happened.  He must now focus on using the powers given him by last year’s reform bill to ensure the VA is a place where this kind of behavior is no longer tolerated.

John McGlothlin is counsel at Cause of Action Institute

An overlooked bipartisan success story in 2017: VA reform

An overlooked bipartisan success story in 2017: VA reform

From the Grammy Awards to the Pro Bowl, it is an American tradition to start the new year by celebrating last year’s successes. These celebrations may seem indulgent, but they serve a purpose: to remind us about achievements that might otherwise be forgotten. Just like sports or entertainment, the end of the year dominated headlines when it came to what Congress accomplished (or didn’t) in 2017.
The push to pass tax cuts was hectic and eventful, with even Republicans saying a major legislative victory was needed after several attempts to repeal Obamacare failed. Yet there was another legislative victory in 2017, one at least as impressive as tax cuts in almost every way: reform at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The bill may have passed in another era — last June — but it should not be forgotten.

DC courts are becoming the place to muzzle scientists (Washington Examiner)

DC courts are becoming the place to muzzle scientists

by John McGlothlin | Nov 22, 2017, 12:01 AM

Science is mostly known for groundbreaking discoveries, quirky characters, and complicated theories. But there is another tradition which has long been part of the field — scientists being incredibly mean to each other.

Few professions are as inherently competitive as science, where one researcher can completely invalidate the work of another. The resulting rivalries are fierce and emotions often run high. One botanist named foul-smelling weeds after a rival who called his work “loathsome harlotry.” Another storied dispute gave rise to the epithet “disgusting old fart neoliberal hypocrite.”

These arguments are usually settled with a witty reply or more research, but a misguided decision by the D.C. Court of Appeals is now prompting scientists to file lawsuits instead. If not corrected, this mistake will pose a serious threat to scientific inquiry, free speech, and the status of the nation’s capital as a place where open debate is protected.

Read the full article at The Washington Examiner

The IRS scandal has not disappeared – it’s gotten worse (The Hill)

The IRS scandal has not disappeared – it’s gotten worse


Judging by the reaction of many elected officials and media outlets, the latest report on the IRS targeting scandal is cause for relief. But a closer look shows the opposite is true – by finding that the agency mistreated a variety of left-leaning groups, the report widens the scope of IRS misconduct and increases the urgency of further changes at the agency. Read the full op-ed at The Hill

A Former IRS Official Chimes In – and Reminds Us Why Change is Necessary

In a letter published earlier this week by the EO Tax Journal, a former branch chief of the IRS Exempt Organizations Division, inadvertently confirmed just what our recent report argued – that the IRS is focused on its own reputation, not its duty to taxpayers.  Conrad Rosenberg, who retired from the agency 20 years ago, doesn’t seem to realize that government agencies have a purpose beyond avoiding criticism:

I find a certain irony in the complaints about the IRS’ use of Sensitive Case Reports to alert upper management about potentially controversial rulings. Imagine the cries of anger and incredulity if the Service issued some ruling that received notoriety in the media.  The very same complainants would be issuing furious pronouncements along these lines: “What!  How is it possible that this terrible mistake never received attention above the level of a GS-13 reviewer?  Surely you don’t expect us to believe that!  Sheer incompetence!  Why weren’t responsible managers rung in on this decision?!”

This letter is a failure of logic and of law. Your rights do not vary based on how “potentially controversial” you are in the eyes of the media, Congress, or the IRS itself.  An organization either satisfies the law’s requirements for tax-exempt status, or it does not.  By trying to concern itself with predicting controversy instead of determining tax status, the IRS risks becomingly overly focused on organizations opposed to a current administration – as was amply demonstrated by the number of “Tea Party” and “patriot” groups treated inappropriately merely because of their names.

The letter is also a prime example of how the government solution to bad government is always more government. Low level staffers were not the ones making “terrible mistakes” in the targeting scandal – in fact, because of the Internal Revenue Manual (IRM) rule discussed in our report, they weren’t making many decisions at all.  They were forced to look upward if an application “might receive media of Congressional attention,” a fact irrelevant to the application’s merit but very relevant to the job prospects of IRS management.

The targeting scandal is not a story of insufficient oversight by senior leaders but of suffocating micromanagement from them. The kind of “cries of anger and incredulity” that Mr. Rosenberg mocks were due to years-long delays and invasive questioning that improperly prevented concerned citizens – including more than one Occupy organization – from fully joining in the democratic process.  Those delays were not caused by junior staffers twiddling their thumbs but by IRS leaders who insisted on centralizing the decision-making.

In the free time taxpayers will inevitably have waiting for the IRS to process their applications, they may find it interesting that the GS-13 employees portrayed by Mr. Rosenberg as too junior to be publicly trusted with doing their job will be paid as much as $127,000 this year.  At what point do they become trustworthy?  $150,000?  $200,000?  Refusing to let these employees make decisions does not increase the quality of the process, only the length of it.

Lastly, our report explains that the other criteria specified by the IRM for issuing Sensitive Case Reports “fall comfortably within the agency’s area of expertise: whether an application affects a large number of taxpayers, presents unique tax issues, or involves $10 million or more.” We are not against the IRS being diligent; we are against it continuing to use internal rules that have nothing to do with the laws it is empowered to enforce.  Criticism of the IRS is not such a terrible outcome that all else must be sacrificed to prevent it, particularly when taxpayers are the ones suffering the brunt of the sacrifice.

John McGlothlin is counsel at Cause of Action Institute

The IRS Responds to Our Report on Targeting – but Misses the Point

As detailed in our recent report, the IRS targeting scandal has a hidden cause which remains unaddressed to this day – a rule in the agency’s own manual that directs employees to treat applications differently if they might “generate media or Congressional attention.”  This rule is what initially prompted low-level IRS tax specialists to hold up applications from Tea Party groups, ultimately resulting in both years of delays for taxpayers and widespread embarrassment for the agency.

The report was accompanied by an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal and was reported on by, among other outlets, Fox News and the EO Tax Journal.  Both of these news reports included quotes from an IRS statement responding to our findings – or at least the agency’s interpretation of them.  Although the aggressive tone of the IRS response surprised the editor of the EO Tax Journal, it serves as a classic example of the bureaucratic mindset that led to the targeting scandal happening in the first place.  Here is the IRS statement in full, as reported in the EO Tax Journal:

“The IRS strongly disputes the [Cause of Action] report and any suggestion or allegation that Exempt Organizations is targeting taxpayers. The IRS emphasizes that this point has been confirmed by independent third parties, including the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. There should be absolutely no doubt on that point, and the continuing commitment by the IRS to be guided by the tax law and nothing else.”

“[Sensitive Case Reports] are used within the IRS to bring to upper management’s attention cases that may generate press or Congressional attention, present unique or novel issues, or affect large numbers of taxpayers. It’s important to note that IRS internal guidelines on sensitive case reports do not instruct the employees to stop working a case or direct employees on how to work a case.

It is head-spinning that the IRS can argue in one sentence that it should be guided by tax law “and nothing else” and then insist in the very next sentence that it is proper to consider “press or Congressional attention” as a criterion, delaying a final decision on tax-exempt applications as a result.  The only purpose of this rule is to avoid possible embarrassment.  Yet an application for tax exempt status is no more related to the notoriety of the applicant than a driver’s license is to the fame of the driver – if you pass the test, you should get the status

The problem with rules that mandate this kind of PR-minded defensiveness is that, as amply documented by the many investigations into the targeting scandal, it drags the application process through multiple echelons of bureaucracy and involves higher officials with strong political leanings. The IRS’s statement claims that it was absolved by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), but in reality, a report from that office repeatedly criticized the IRS for “using inappropriate criteria” to scrutinize applications – criteria which ended up focusing overwhelmingly on political opponents of the administration in power.  IRS officials insisted on seeing every application from Tea Party-affiliated groups because of the “media attention” they were attracting, and as shown in the same TIGTA report, the result was an endless array of delays and invasive questioning.

John McGlothlin is counsel at Cause of Action Institute