Supreme Court Reaffirms ‘Actual Innocence’ Requirement for Criminal-Case Malpractice Claims

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The Washington Supreme Court recently reaffirmed the requirement that a plaintiff in a legal malpractice claim arising from a criminal case prove that the plaintiff was actually innocent of the crime involved. The “actual innocence” requirement presents a high bar for claimants because, as the Supreme Court explained in Ang v. Martin, 154 Wn.2d 477, 484-85, 114 P.3d 637 (2005), it means more than just “legal innocence” in the sense of having a conviction reversed or otherwise vacated. As the Supreme Court defined it in Ang, “actual innocence” means just that: a malpractice claimant must show that the claimant did not do the crime charged.

The Supreme Court reaffirmed the broad sweep the “actual innocence” requirement in Piris v. Kitching, ___ Wn.2d ___, 375 P.3d 627 (2016). In Piris, the plaintiff had plead guilty to a felony and was sentenced to a long prison term. On appeal in the underlying criminal case, Piris argued successfully that the trial court had miscalculated the sentence and the Court of Appeals remanded for resentencing. The resentencing, however, did not occur and by the time the trial court itself discovered that fact, 12 years later, Piris had already served all 159 months of his prison term. The trial court corrected its error by reducing Piris’ sentence to 146 months. He then sued his trial and appellate counsel for malpractice, arguing that he had served 13 months longer than he should have.

Citing Ang’s “actual innocence” requirement, the trial court in the subsequent malpractice case granted summary judgment for the defendants and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Reaffirming Ang, the Supreme Court agreed. In doing so, the Supreme Court distinguished Powell v. Associated Counsel for the Accused, 131 Wn. App. 810, 815, 129 P.3d 831 (2006). In Powell, the Court of Appeals concluded that the “actual innocence” requirement did not apply when a criminal defendant was sentenced to a longer period than the statute involved permitted — reasoning that “Powell’s case is more akin to that of an innocent person wrongfully convicted than of a guilty person attempting to take advantage of his own wrongdoing.” By contrast, the Supreme Court in Piris held that Powell’s narrow exception did not apply when — as was the case with Piris — the court had the requisite authority to impose the sentence involved, even if an appellate court concluded later that the trial court had misapplied the pertinent standards.

Given the unusual circumstances in Powell, Piris effectively casts the sentencing exception very narrowly. As a result, the “actual innocence” requirement will continue to present a very high bar for most potential criminal malpractice claimants.