WILLIAM GRAHAM, Plaintiff–Appellant, v. STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEPARTMENT OF THE TREASURY, Defendant–Respondent.
Plaintiff William Graham appeals the Law Division's August 22, 2012 order granting the State's motion for summary judgment. We affirm.
We discern the following facts and procedural history from the record on appeal.
Graham pled guilty to drug-related offenses on June 6, 2008. On August 28, he was sentenced to incarceration for three years, with one year of parole ineligibility. Graham was paroled on October 26, 2009.
In 2010, after an investigation by the United States Department of Justice, five members of the City of Camden's Police Department were indicted and charged with conspiracy to deprive criminal defendants of their constitutional rights. Following the indictment, the Camden County Prosecutor voluntarily dismissed charges against approximately 200 criminal defendants.1 Graham's guilty plea and the resulting conviction were vacated on April 21, 2010.
On February 21, 2012, Graham filed the present action against the State, in which he seeks damages for wrongful conviction and imprisonment pursuant to the Mistaken Imprisonment Act (Act), N.J.S.A. 52:4C–1 to –6 (1997), amended by L. 2013, c. 171, § 1.2 The Act was designed to provide redress “over and above the existing tort remedies” for “innocent persons who have been convicted of crimes and subsequently imprisoned.” N.J.S.A. 52:4C–1.
The State moved for summary judgment in June, arguing, among other things, that Graham's action was barred because he did not file suit within the time limit established by N.J.S.A. 52:4C–4. Following oral argument on August 22, the motion judge granted summary judgment based solely on the untimely filing of the complaint. This appeal followed.
We review a grant of summary judgment under the same standard as the motion judge. Rowe v. Mazel Thirty, LLC, 209 N.J. 35, 41 (2012). “[T]he legal conclusions undergirding the summary judgment motion itself” are reviewed “on a plenary de novo basis.” Estate of Hanges v. Metro. Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 202 N.J. 369, 385 (2010).
N.J.S.A. 52:4C–4 provides that
suit [under the Act] ․ shall be brought by the claimant within a period of two years after his release from imprisonment, or after the grant of a pardon to him; provided, however, that any eligible claimant released or pardoned during the five-year period prior to May 2, 1996 shall have two years from the effective date of this act to file a suit.
Graham was released from prison on October 26, 2009, and filed his complaint on February 21, 2012, which was more than two years later. Consequently, a plain-language reading of the N.J.S.A. 52:4C–4 would require an affirmance of the dismissal on statute of limitations grounds.
Graham argues that the limitation period in N.J.S.A. 52:4C–4 should be interpreted to permit the filing of suit within two years from the date on which the underlying conviction was vacated, if that date is later than the date of release from incarceration. He contends that, because a claim under the Act does not realistically accrue until the conviction has been vacated, a literal interpretation of the Act's limitation provision would be inconsistent with the Legislature's overall intent and would inequitably bar the claims of deserving claimants.
There is some appeal to his arguments. For example, under the literal interpretation argued by the State, a defendant who is released from incarceration more than two years prior to issuance of the order vacating his sentence would be barred from suit, whereas a defendant released on the same day would not be barred if he received a pardon on the same date the other defendant's conviction was vacated. In addition, it is by no means clear that a defendant could, as a practical matter, recover under the Act absent a pardon or the vacation of the underlying conviction, especially because such a claim might be barred by considerations of equitable estoppel and res judicata if the conviction were still in place. These facts raise the question of whether the running of the limitation period should be tolled until the underlying conviction has been vacated. In a very real sense, the vacation of the conviction is the functional equivalent of a pardon, which is the other event the Legislature used as the starting point for the two-year period.
We need not reach that question, however, because there is an alternative basis for the dismissal of Graham's claim.3 In Mills v. Department of the Treasury, No. A–3234–12 (App.Div. March 13, 2014), a case that was argued on the same day as this one, we determined that a defendant whose conviction resulted from a guilty plea is, as a matter of law, precluded from recovering under the “own-conduct” bar in N.J.S.A. 52:4C–3(c). Consequently, even if Graham's complaint were found to have been timely filed, the State would be entitled to summary judgment on the basis of the “own-conduct” bar.
1. FN1. Although some of the criminal defendants whose charges were dismissed have been the subject of the specific cases that gave rise to the federal indictment, others were simply defendants who had been charged as the result of investigations by the indicted officers.
2. FN2. Unless otherwise indicated, references or citations to the Act refer to the pre-amendment version, which governs the disposition of this case.
3. FN3. We may rely on grounds other than those upon which the trial judge relied. See State v. Maples, 346 N.J.Super. 408, 417 (App.Div.2002); State v. DeLuca, 325 N.J.Super. 376, 389 (App.Div.1999), modified, 168 N.J. 626 (2001).