Spak v. Phillips, No. 15-3525 (2d Cir. 2017)

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Justia Opinion Summary

A nolle prosequi constitutes a "favorable termination" for the purpose of determining when a 42 U.S.C. 1983 claim accrues. In this case, plaintiff filed suit against defendant, a police officer, under section 1983, alleging malicious prosecution in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The district court held that plaintiff's malicious prosecution claim accrued when the nolle prosequi was entered, and that as a result his suit was time‐ barred. The Second Circuit affirmed, holding that plaintiff's claim accrued when the charges against him were nolled.

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15 3525 cv Spak v. Phillips 1 2 In the 3 United States Court of Appeals 4 For the Second Circuit 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 ________ AUGUST TERM, 2016 ARGUED: SEPTEMBER 27, 2016 DECIDED: MAY 22, 2017 No. 15 3525 cv PAUL SPAK, Plaintiff Appellant, v. SHANE PHILLIPS, Defendant Appellee. ________ Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut. No. 13 Civ. 1724 – Jeffrey A. Meyer, Judge. ________ Before: WALKER and CABRANES, Circuit Judges, and BERMAN, District Judge. * ________ Judge Richard M. Berman, United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York, sitting by designation. * 2 No. 15 3525 cv 1 Plaintiff appellant Paul Spak appeals a decision of the United 2 States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Jeffrey A. Meyer, 3 J.) granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant appellee 4 Shane Phillips, an officer with the Plainville Police Department in 5 Plainville, Connecticut. In 2010, Spak was arrested by Phillips and 6 charged under Conn. Gen. Stat. § 53a 155 with destroying evidence 7 related to the alleged discharge of illegal fireworks. The prosecuting 8 attorney subsequently dismissed those charges by entering a nolle 9 prosequi. More than three years after the entry of the nolle, Spak 10 brought suit against Phillips for malicious prosecution in violation 11 of the Fourth Amendment, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The district court 12 held that Spak’s malicious prosecution claim accrued when the nolle 13 prosequi was entered, and that as a result his suit was time barred. 14 On appeal, Spak contends that his claim did not accrue when the 15 prosecuting attorney nolled his case, but thirteen months later when 16 all public records of his prosecution were erased pursuant to a 17 Connecticut recordkeeping statute. We conclude that Spak’s claim 18 accrued when the charges against him were nolled. We therefore 19 AFFIRM the judgment of the district court. 20 21 22 23 24 ________ JOHN R. WILLIAMS, John R. Williams and Associates, LLC, New Haven, CT, for Plaintiff Appellant. 3 1 2 3 4 5 6 No. 15 3525 cv JAMES N. TALLBERG (Dennis M. Durao, on the brief), Karsten & Tallberg, LLC, Rocky Hill, CT, for Defendant Appellee. ________ JOHN M. WALKER, JR., Circuit Judge: 7 Plaintiff appellant Paul Spak appeals a decision of the United 8 States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Jeffrey A. Meyer, 9 J.) granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant appellee 10 Shane Phillips, an officer with the Plainville Police Department in 11 Plainville, Connecticut. In 2010, Spak was arrested by Phillips and 12 charged under Conn. Gen. Stat. § 53a 155 with destroying evidence 13 related to the alleged discharge of illegal fireworks. The prosecuting 14 attorney subsequently dismissed those charges by entering a nolle 15 prosequi. More than three years after the entry of the nolle, Spak 16 brought suit against Phillips for malicious prosecution in violation 17 of the Fourth Amendment, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The district court 18 held that Spak’s malicious prosecution claim accrued when the nolle 19 prosequi was entered, and that as a result his suit was time barred. 20 On appeal, Spak contends that his claim did not accrue when the 21 prosecuting attorney nolled his case, but thirteen months later when 22 all public records of his prosecution were erased pursuant to a 23 Connecticut recordkeeping statute. We conclude that Spak’s claim 4 No. 15 3525 cv 1 accrued when the charges against him were nolled. We therefore 2 AFFIRM the judgment of the district court. 3 BACKGROUND 4 The relevant facts in this appeal are not in dispute. On June 12, 5 2010, Phillips responded to a complaint of fireworks being 6 discharged in Spak’s neighborhood. When he arrived to investigate, 7 he observed Spak burning the remnants of fireworks in a backyard 8 fire pit, in what Phillips perceived as an attempt to destroy evidence. 9 The following day, Phillips submitted a sworn affidavit to the 10 Connecticut Superior Court seeking a warrant to arrest Spak on, 11 inter alia, charges of tampering with or fabricating evidence. Based 12 on Phillips’ sworn statement, the Connecticut Superior Court issued 13 a warrant for Spak’s arrest on June 15, 2010, and based on that 14 warrant Spak was arrested on June 24, 2010. On September 10, 2010, 15 the prosecuting attorney unilaterally dismissed the charges against 16 Spak by entering a nolle prosequi. A nolle prosequi is “a declaration of 17 the prosecuting officer that he will not prosecute further at that time 18 . . . Upon the entering of a nolle prosequi by the state’s attorney, 19 there is no case.” State v. Winer, 286 Conn. 666, 685 (quoting State v. 20 Ackerman, 27 Conn. Supp. 209, 211 (1967)). The state never instituted 21 further charges against Spak subsequent to the nolle stemming from 22 the June 12, 2010 incident. 5 No. 15 3525 cv 1 On October 29, 2013, Spak sued Phillips in Connecticut state 2 court for malicious prosecution under Section 1983 and the Fourth 3 Amendment. Phillips removed the action to the District of 4 Connecticut on November 18, 2013. On January 30, 2015, Phillips 5 moved for summary judgment on several grounds, including that 6 Spak’s action was untimely because he filed his complaint more than 7 three years after the accrual of his claim. On October 14, 2015, the 8 district court granted Phillips’ motion for summary judgment on 9 that ground. Specifically, the district court held that Spak’s 10 malicious prosecution claim accrued on September 10, 2010, when 11 the charges against him were nolled, and therefore dismissed the suit 12 as time barred. Spak now appeals. DISCUSSION 13 14 A district court’s grant of summary judgment is reviewed de 15 novo. Gallo v. Prudential Residential Servs., Ltd. P ship, 22 F.3d 1219, 16 1224 (2d Cir. 1994). All legal conclusions by a district court are 17 reviewed de novo. United States v. Livecchi, 711 F.3d 345, 351 (2d Cir. 18 2013) (per curiam). 19 On appeal, it is uncontested that Spak filed his complaint 20 alleging malicious prosecution more than three years after the state’s 21 attorney’s entry of a nolle prosequi. Spak concedes that if his claim for 22 malicious prosecution accrued on the date that the state’s attorney 23 nolled the charges against him, his suit is untimely. However, he 6 No. 15 3525 cv 1 argues that his claim did not accrue on the date that the charges 2 against him were nolled, but thirteen months later when Connecticut 3 law mandated that the records of his nolled prosecution be erased. 4 I. 5 Accrual of Section 1983 Claims 6 In the absence of federal common law, the merits of a claim 7 for malicious prosecution under Section 1983 are governed by state 8 law. Janetka v. Dabe, 892 F.2d 187, 189 (2d Cir. 1989).1 Likewise, the 9 applicable statute of limitations for a malicious prosecution claim is 10 borrowed from the statute of limitations for the analogous claim 11 under the law of the state where the cause of action accrued, see Under Connecticut law, a plaintiff asserting malicious prosecution must prove that: “(1) the defendant initiated or procured the institution of criminal proceedings against the plaintiff; (2) the criminal proceedings have terminated in favor of the plaintiff; (3) the defendant acted without probable cause; and (4) the defendant acted with malice, primarily for a purpose other than that of bringing an offender to justice.” Brooks v. Sweeney, 299 Conn. 196, 210 11 (2010). The United States Supreme Court has never squarely held that a plaintiff may bring a suit under Section 1983 for malicious prosecution based on an alleged violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. In Manuel v. City of Joliet, 137 S. Ct. 911 (2017), the Supreme Court confirmed that plaintiffs can sustain Section 1983 suits under the Fourth Amendment for deprivations of liberty suffered as a result of improper or maliciously instituted legal process. Id. at 918 (“[T]hose objecting to a pretrial deprivation of liberty may invoke the Fourth Amendment when . . . that deprivation occurs after legal process commences.”). However, the Court’s opinion in Manuel did not directly address the other “elements of, and rules associated with, an action seeking damages for” an unlawful pretrial detention. Id. at 920. The rule in the Second Circuit is that plaintiffs may bring what is in effect a state law suit for malicious prosecution in federal court under Section 1983, so long as they are able to demonstrate a deprivation of liberty amounting to a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Singer v. Fulton Cty. Sheriff, 63 F.3d 110, 116 (2d Cir. 1995). Under our precedent, such a suit is proper where: (1) the defendant is a state actor, and (2) the plaintiff who was subject to malicious prosecution was also subject to arrest or seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. See Manganiello v. City of New York, 612 F.3d 149, 160 61 (2d Cir. 2010). 1 7 No. 15 3525 cv 1 Lounsbury v. Jeffries, 25 F.3d 131, 133 (2d Cir. 1994); see also Wallace v. 2 Kato, 549 U.S. 384, 387 (2007), which in Connecticut is three years, see 3 Walker v. Jastremski, 430 F.3d 560, 562 (2d Cir. 2005). 4 However, the time at which a claim for malicious prosecution 5 under Section 1983 accrues is “a question of federal law that is not 6 resolved by reference to state law.” Wallace, 549 U.S. at 388. Federal 7 courts apply “general . . . common law tort principles” to determine 8 the accrual date of a Section 1983 claim. Id.; see also Manuel, 137 S. Ct. 9 at 920 (“In defining the contours and prerequisites of a § 1983 claim, 10 including its rule of accrual, courts are to look first to the common 11 law of torts.”). In malicious prosecution suits under Section 1983, the 12 statute of limitations begins to run when the prosecution 13 “terminate[s] in the plaintiff’s favor.” Poventud v. City of N.Y., 750 14 F.3d 121, 130 (2d Cir. 2014) (en banc) (quoting Heck v. Humphrey, 512 15 U.S. 477, 489 90 (1994)). A “favorable termination” does not occur 16 until the prosecution against the plaintiff has “conclusively” ended. 17 Murphy v. Lynn, 53 F.3d 547, 548 (2d Cir. 1995). 18 One point of clarification regarding this accrual rule is in 19 order. The fact that the accrual of Section 1983 claims is analyzed 20 under federal common law, while the merits of those claims are 21 analyzed under the law of the state where the tort occurred, has led 22 to some confusion concerning the standards used to define a 23 “favorable termination” in the malicious prosecution context. This is 8 No. 15 3525 cv 1 because a malicious prosecution claim accrues when the underlying 2 prosecution terminates in favor of the accused, id., but “favorable 3 termination” is also a substantive element of a state law tort claim, 4 see, e.g., Singleton v. City of New York, 632 F.2d 185, 193 (2d Cir. 1980). 5 While the same phrase—“favorable termination”—is used in both 6 the accrual analysis and the merits analysis of a Section 1983 suit, it 7 is analyzed under a different legal standard in each context. 8 When the question before a federal court is at what point a 9 malicious prosecution claim accrued, “favorable termination” is 10 analyzed under federal common law, because the timing of accrual 11 is a question of federal law. See, e.g., Wallace, 549 U.S. at 388. When, 12 by contrast, a federal court is analyzing the substantive merits of a 13 plaintiff’s claim, the definition of “favorable termination” is 14 analyzed under state law. See, e.g., Singleton, 632 F.2d at 193. What 15 constitutes a “favorable termination” may turn out to be the same in 16 each context, but not necessarily so. However, even if “favorable 17 termination” in a particular case is unclear as a matter of state law, it 18 can still be conclusively resolved as a matter of claim accrual under 19 federal law. Thus, the fact that a nolle prosequi constitutes a favorable 20 termination under Connecticut state law may be relevant to our 21 accrual inquiry, but it is not dispositive. Unless a nolle also 22 constitutes a “favorable termination” under federal common law, 9 No. 15 3525 cv 1 then Spak’s claim did not accrue for Section 1983 purposes upon 2 entry of the nolle. 3 4 II. Effect of a Nolle Prosequi 5 Under Connecticut law, a prosecutor may decline to prosecute 6 a case by entering a nolle prosequi. Conn. Practice Book § 39 31 (2017). 7 The effect of a nolle is to terminate a particular prosecution against 8 the defendant. However, a nolle prosequi is not the equivalent of a 9 dismissal of a criminal prosecution with prejudice, because jeopardy 10 does not attach. Roberts v. Babkiewicz, 582 F.3d 418, 420 (2d Cir. 2009) 11 (per curiam) (“A nolle prosequi is ‘a unilateral act by a prosecutor, 12 which ends the pending proceedings without an acquittal and 13 without placing the defendant in jeopardy.’”) (quoting Cislo v. City of 14 Shelton, 240 Conn. 590, 599 n.9 (1997)). 15 The statute of limitations on the nolled charge continues to run, 16 and the prosecutor may choose to initiate a second prosecution at 17 any time before the limitations period expires. Winer, 286 Conn. at 18 684 85. A prosecution can only be reinstituted following a nolle, 19 however, by the filing of a new charging document and a new 20 arrest. Id. at 685. If a new prosecution is not commenced, 21 Connecticut law requires that within thirteen months of the nolle “all 22 police and court records and records of the state’s or prosecuting 23 attorney” related to the prosecution be erased. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 54 10 No. 15 3525 cv 1 142a(c)(1); see also Martin v. Hearst Corp., 777 F.3d 546, 549 (2d Cir. 2 2015). 3 III. 4 The Nolle Prosequi Constituted a Favorable Termination for Claim Accrual Purposes 5 6 We agree with the district court that as a general matter a nolle 7 prosequi constitutes a “favorable termination” for the purpose of 8 determining when a Section 1983 claim accrues.2 The weight of 9 authority on the common law of malicious prosecution supports this 10 conclusion. See, e.g., RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS § 659 cmt. (c) 11 (AM. LAW INST. 1977) (“If the public prosecutor has power to make 12 such an entry [of nolle prosequi] without the consent of the court, the 13 entry constitutes a termination of the proceedings in favor of the 14 accused.”). Other federal courts have held that the entry of a nolle 15 prosequi is sufficient to constitute a favorable termination. See, e.g., 16 Owens v. Balt. City State s Attorneys Office, 767 F.3d 379, 390 (4th Cir. Our opinion in Roberts v. Babkiewicz, 582 F.3d 418 (2d Cir. 2009), did not settle this issue. In Roberts, the district court granted judgment on the pleadings to the defendants on the plaintiff’s Section 1983 malicious prosecution claim. Id. at 419 20. The district court held that the plaintiff had not demonstrated that the dismissal of criminal charges against him by nolle prosequi constituted a “favorable termination” as a matter of state substantive law, because the charges had been nolled as part of a plea agreement. Id. at 420. We remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings, on the basis that the facts in the complaint, construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, did not necessarily demonstrate that the nolle was entered in exchange for a plea to a lesser charge. Id. at 421 22. However, our opinion in Roberts only dealt with the merits of the plaintiff’s underlying state law claim. It did not address the question of whether a nolle constitutes a favorable termination under federal common law. 2 11 No. 15 3525 cv 1 2014), cert. denied sub nom. Balt. City Police Dep t v. Owens, 135 S. Ct. 2 1893 (2015) (citing common law authorities to conclude that a nolle 3 prosequi constitutes a favorable termination); Donahue v. Gavin, 280 4 F.3d 371, 383 (3d Cir. 2002); White v. Rockafellow, 181 F.3d 106, 106 5 (6th Cir. 1999); Washington v. Summerville, 127 F.3d 552, 557 (7th Cir. 6 1997). 7 To be sure, courts and common law authorities state that a 8 nolle does not constitute a favorable termination when it is entered 9 for reasons that are “not indicative of the defendant’s innocence.” 10 Washington, 127 F.3d at 557. However, this qualifier is defined 11 narrowly. It generally only includes nolles that are caused by the 12 defendant—either by his fleeing the jurisdiction to make himself 13 unavailable for trial or delaying a trial by means of fraud. It also 14 includes any nolle entered in exchange for consideration offered by 15 the defendant (e.g., cooperation). See generally RESTATEMENT 16 (SECOND) OF TORTS § 660 (AM. LAW INST. 1977). 17 18 Murphy v. Lynn which states that the termination of a prosecution 19 must be “conclusive[]” in order to satisfy the favorable termination 20 requirement of a Section 1983 claim. 53 F.3d at 548. Murphy involved 21 a malicious prosecution claim originating in New York, while Spak’s 22 claim accrued in Connecticut, but it is nonetheless relevant because 23 favorable termination for accrual purposes is a matter of federal law Spak disputes this conclusion, and cites our decision in 12 No. 15 3525 cv 1 which does not vary from state to state. Spak contends that a nolle 2 prosequi is not a “conclusive” termination of a prosecution because 3 jeopardy does not attach when a nolle is entered and the prosecuting 4 attorney may file new charges against the same defendant for the 5 same criminal act at any time before the statute of limitations on the 6 underlying crime has run. 7 8 strictly speaking, a nolle prosequi only terminates a specific 9 prosecution by vacating a charging instrument; it does not prevent a 10 prosecutor from re charging the same defendant for the same 11 criminal conduct at some point in the future. Winer, 286 Conn. at 12 685. Under the common law, however, a termination of the existing 13 prosecution is sufficient for a malicious prosecution claim to accrue. 14 See W. PAGE KEETON, ET AL., PROSSER & KEETON ON TORTS § 119 (5th 15 ed. 1984) (noting that the entry of a nolle prosequi constitutes 16 favorable termination for malicious prosecution charges when it 17 “h[as] the effect of ending the particular proceeding and requiring 18 new process or other official action to commence a new 19 prosecution”). So long as a particular prosecution has been 20 “conclusively” terminated in favor of the accused, such that the 21 underlying indictment or criminal information has been vacated and 22 cannot be revived, then the plaintiff has a justiciable claim for 23 malicious prosecution. At that point, all of the issues relevant to the This argument misreads our holding in Murphy. It is true that, 13 No. 15 3525 cv 1 claim—such as malice and lack of probable cause, see, 299 Conn. at 2 210 11—are ripe for adjudication. Nothing in our opinion in Murphy 3 can be read to contravene this longstanding common law rule. 4 5 York, 102 F.3d 654, 658 (2d Cir. 1996), and the Supreme Court have 6 warned against the possibility of parallel civil and criminal litigation 7 arising from the state’s prosecution of the same defendant for the 8 same criminal offense, Heck, 512 U.S. at 484–86 (noting that favorable 9 termination requirement “avoids parallel litigation over the issues of 10 probable cause and guilt . . . and [] precludes the possibility of the 11 claimant [sic] succeeding in the tort action after having been 12 convicted in the underlying criminal prosecution, in contravention 13 of a strong judicial policy against the creation of two conflicting 14 resolutions arising out of the same or identical transaction”) 15 (quoting 8 S. SPEISER, C. KRAUSE, & A. GANS, AMERICAN LAW OF 16 TORTS § 28:5, p. 24 (1991)); accord Poventud, 750 F.3d at 130. We are mindful that both our court, see DiBlasio v. City of New 17 However, we read our precedent and the Supreme Court’s 18 dicta in Heck v. Humphrey to counsel only against duplicative 19 litigation on issues of guilt and probable cause arising out of the 20 same accusatory instrument.3 Heck and its progeny generally deal We are aware that the District of Connecticut has held in several instances that a nolle is not sufficient to constitute favorable termination, and that a plaintiff must obtain either an unqualified dismissal or an acquittal of charges in order to pursue a malicious prosecution claim under Section 1983. See Simpson v. Denardo, No. 3:02CV1471(MRK), 3 14 No. 15 3525 cv 1 with Section 1983 suits that are filed by plaintiffs asserting that a 2 prior criminal conviction is invalid, and seeking to recover damages 3 for the state’s abuse of legal process. Those decisions thus require 4 that the plaintiff demonstrate that the outstanding conviction has 5 been conclusively invalidated in a manner that demonstrates his 6 innocence before he can pursue his civil claim. See, e.g., Heck, 512 7 U.S. at 484 81; Pontevud, 750 F.3d at 131 33; DiBlasio, 102 F.3d at 658 8 59. They do not address the type of termination at issue here, in 9 which a plaintiff was never convicted of a criminal offense, but the 10 charges against him were dismissed in a manner that did not 11 preclude future prosecution under a different charging instrument. 12 We do not read those opinions to prevent such a plaintiff from 13 bringing suit on the basis of vacated charges simply because he 14 might be prosecuted again in the future, even successfully. See, e.g., 15 RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS § 659, cmt. b (1977) (AM. LAW INST. 16 1977) (“In order that there may be a sufficient termination in favor of 17 the accused it is not necessary that the proceedings should have 2004 WL 1737444, at *10 (D. Conn. July 29, 2004) (“A nolle prosequi does not qualify as a favorable termination for purposes of a malicious prosecution claim.”); Bacchiocchi v. Chapman, No. 03:02CV1403, 2004 WL 202142, at *4 5 (D. Conn. Jan. 26, 2004). These holdings were based on the Second Circuit’s decision in Roesch v. Otarola, 980 F.2d 850, 853 (2d Cir. 1992), which stated that “[a] person who thinks there is not even probable cause to believe he committed the crime with which he is charged must pursue the criminal case to an acquittal or an unqualified dismissal, or else waive his section 1983 claim.” In Roesch, the prosecution against the plaintiff was not terminated by a nolle prosequi, but rather by participation in a pre trial rehabilitation program. Id. at 851. To the extent that district courts have read Roesch to imply that a nolle does not constitute a favorable termination, this reading is mistaken. 15 No. 15 3525 cv 1 gone so far as to preclude further prosecution on the ground of 2 double jeopardy.”). Indeed, while it is theoretically possible that a 3 prosecutor could revive a nolled case, and obtain a criminal 4 conviction against a defendant who has already received a favorable 5 civil judgment in a malicious prosecution suit, we think that this is 6 highly unlikely to occur in practice. Cf. Uboh v. Reno, 141 F.3d 1000, 7 1005–06 (11th Cir. 1998) (holding that a prosecutor’s unilateral 8 dismissal of charges constituted a favorable termination, on the 9 grounds that it was “extraordinarily unlikely” that the prosecutor 10 would “renew[] [the charges] in a subsequent action”). 11 Moreover, preventing plaintiffs from bringing suit for 12 malicious prosecution once a nolle is entered would be inconsistent 13 with the purpose of Section 1983. See Manuel, 137 S. Ct. at 921 (“In 14 applying, selecting among, or adjusting common law approaches 15 [for determining when a claim under Section 1983 accrues], courts 16 must closely attend to the values and purposes of the constitutional 17 right at issue.”). When the state institutes criminal charges 18 maliciously and without probable cause and requires a defendant to 19 appear before a court and answer those charges, it violates the 20 Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unlawful seizure. See 21 Murphy, 118 F.3d at 944. The accused is entitled to seek recovery for 22 such a wrongful seizure as soon as the charges are vacated. His day 16 No. 15 3525 cv 1 in court should not be delayed merely because the state remains free 2 to bring a similar prosecution in the future. 3 Lastly, Spak’s contention that his claim accrued not upon 4 entry of the nolle, but thirteen months later when records of the 5 charges against him were automatically erased pursuant to 6 Connecticut state law, see Conn. Gen. Stat. § 54 142a(c)(1), is 7 meritless. Connecticut courts have made clear that the erasure 8 provision Spak cites is a purely administrative measure, Winer, 286 9 Conn. at 679–80 (holding that “the recording of nolles and later, the 10 erasure of criminal records,” are “administrative rather than 11 substantive in intent”). Moreover, the erasure of records pertaining 12 to a prosecution does not preclude the prosecuting attorney from 13 filing new charges against the same defendant at some point in the 14 future. See id. at 683 (noting that the erasure provision does not 15 “provide new substantive protections for defendants”). This statute 16 therefore provides no more “conclusive” bar to future criminal 17 proceedings than the nolle itself. CONCLUSION 18 19 We have considered Spak’s remaining arguments, and we 20 find them unavailing. We therefore AFFIRM the judgment of the 21 district court.