Presented by the Public Entity and Civil Rights Litigation Practice Group

Legal Updates for NJ Public Entity & Civil Rights - August 2019

Appellate Division Discusses Inter-Relationship Between Tort Claims Act and Malicious Prosecution

By Matthew J. Behr, Esq.

In Murphy v. Shaw, Docket No. A-3715-16T3, the Appellate Division provided guidance as to the accrual date for a malicious prosecution claim and the need to file a Tort Claims Notice.

In Murphy, Martin’s vehicle struck Murphy’s vehicle in a road rage incident. Police officers responded to the scene of the accident. Murphy alleged that the officers were extremely abrasive, gruff, and confrontational with her and that one of the officers in particular was making sexually suggestive comments and gestures toward her. Murphy was charged with various municipal violations.

The following day, Murphy retained Shaw as her attorney. The plaintiff believed she retained Shaw to represent her in the criminal matter and a possible civil lawsuit against the police officers. Shaw testified that he was only retained to represent the plaintiff in the municipal court matter.

Prior to the municipal court date, Murphy terminated Shaw and appeared in court pro se. She was then appointed a public defender. Ultimately, all charges were dismissed against her, along with all charges against Martin, as part of an agreement. She then filed a civil complaint against the officers and the police department. The first trial resulted in a no cause judgment. However, the Appellate Division reversed that verdict due to an incorrect jury charge.

The plaintiff, separately, filed a legal malpractice claim against Shaw, claiming that he failed to file a Tort Claims Notice for claims of malicious prosecution. The issue in the legal malpractice action was when the cause of action for the malicious prosecution claim accrued.

In analyzing the elements of malicious prosecution, the Appellate Division concentrated on when and if Murphy secured a “favorable termination” of her municipal court matter. The court concluded that Murphy’s criminal matter was not terminated in her favor. Rather, a settlement occurred; therefore, Murphy did not prevail on the merits. “If the charge is withdrawn or the prosecution abandoned pursuant to an agreement of compromise with the accused, the termination is viewed as indecisive and insufficient to support the cause of action [, and] the accused may not later contend that the proceedings terminated in [her] favor.” (Citation omitted.) As a result, Murphy did not have a claim for malicious prosecution since she could not establish all of the necessary elements for that claim.

The court then concluded, had she obtained a favorable termination of the charges against her, that decision did not occur until after she dismissed Shaw’s services as an attorney (the dismissal of the municipal court charges). Therefore, the Tort Claims Notice should have been filed 90 days after the dismissal of the municipal court charges, which was after Murphy terminated Shaw’s services. As a result, Shaw had no obligation to file a notice of tort claim for a malicious prosecution claim that did not accrue while he represented her.       

Murphy v. Shaw is an important decision in two respects. First, the Appellate Division affirmed the long-standing principal that malicious prosecution claims are not ripe until a determination is made in the municipal or criminal courts. Second, not until a determination occurs as to the outcome of those charges does the obligation to file a Tort Claims Notice accrue. Public entities should be mindful to pursue all available defenses in malicious prosecution claims.



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