Woidtke v. St. Clair County, 335 F.3d 558 (7th Cir. 2003)

IL: Criminal Law

Student Contributor: Stefan Campagna

Facts: In this malpractice case, a former state prisoner who had been incarcerated for 12 years before his murder conviction was vacated filed suit against the county and his public defenders. In his suit, he alleged that the public defenders’ negligent representation resulted in his conviction and subsequent 12 year term. He also alleged that the county was liable for the public defender’s wrongful acts. The underlying action that gave rise to the malpractice case involved a not guilty verdict after a retrial in May of 2000, after he already had served 12 years after he was convicted of murder. After the prisoner brought his legal malpractice action in The United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, the public defenders motioned to dismiss the case based on the argument that the prisoner’s complaint was filed late because his cause of action accrued on May 11, 2000, when the Illinois Appellate Court issued its final mandate vacating his conviction. Because the prisoner did not file suit within one year of that date, it was argued that his claim was barred. The prisoner responded that his suit was timely because his cause of action did not accrue until March 30, 2001, when he was found not guilty after a retrial. The District Court granted the public defender’s motion to dismiss, and the prisoner then appealed.

Issue: When does a former criminal defendant’s cause of action for legal malpractice accrue against his former counsel?

Ruling: The United States Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the prisoner’s case, finding that the former prisoner’s cause of action for legal malpractice accrued against his former counsel once his conviction was overturned in May of 2000. The court ruled that under Illinois law, a cause of action for legal malpractice accrues when the client discovers, or should have discovered, the facts establishing the elements of his cause of action. It was at this point in time that all the necessary elements for the former prisoner’s cause of action were present, and it was then that the time to file began to accrue.

Lesson: In Illinois, a cause of action for legal malpractice accrues when the client discovers, or should have discovered, the facts establishing the elements of his cause of action. This means that on the day a conviction is overturned, the time to file a legal malpractice action against one’s former counsel begins to run.