Dismissal “With Prejudice” Until Heck v. Humphrey Conditions Are Met Is Not A Final Appealable Order, Holds Fifth Circuit

In Cook v. City of Tyler, Tex., No. 19-40144 (5th Cir. Sept. 4, 2020) (per curiam), the court dismisses an appeal taken by defendants in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 wrongful imprisonment case for lack of appellate jurisdiction. The form of judgment, while final in form, was held non-final because the plaintiff had leave to refile when the legal preconditions were met.

As a matter of legal background, when a plaintiff challenges a wrongful prosecution, conviction, or imprisonment, the claim does not accrue under Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1986), until the challenged conviction is vacated or indictment dismissed.

In this case, the plaintiff filed before the Heck conditions were met. The defendants moved for summary judgment. While the defendants’ motion was denied in part, the district court held that the case premature and thus entered a judgment that “the above-styled civil action is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE to the claims being asserted again until the Heck conditions are met.” The form of judgment was cribbed directly from Johnson v. McElveen, 101 F.3d 423 (5th Cir. 1996), which held that this kind of dismissal “do[es] not preclude a later claim meeting the preconditions for suit.” Both parties took appeals from the judgment.

The Fifth Circuit dismisses, holding that the dismissal was non-final. The panel observes that “Johnson’s language suffices [to non-prejudicially dispose of the case] because it offers the caveat that plaintiffs may reassert their claims upon satisfying the Heck conditions but may not otherwise develop the claims ‘until’ those conditions are met. The caveat qualifies the finality of the dismissal.”

The panel concludes: “The district court noted that Cook is awaiting vacatur of his conviction by the [Texas Court of Criminal Appeals] and stated that Cook was free to bring his claims once the Heck conditions are met. That is, litigation on the merits is not over because Cook expects to satisfy the Heck conditions soon and may resubmit his claims thereafter. Because the dismissal of plaintiff’s claims does not prevent him from re-filing the same or similar claims at a later date, the district court’s judgment was not a final decision. We lack jurisdiction to hear the appeal or cross-appeal.”

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