July 23, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Three-Year Statute of Limitations for General Tort Applies to Childhood Sexual Abuse Claims

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Varnell v. Dora Consolidated School District on Tuesday, July 1, 2014.

Plaintiff Varnell was allegedly sexually abused by her coach, Amber Shaw, beginning in 2005 and ending in early 2007, when plaintiff was in seventh through ninth grades at Dora Consolidated School District. On May 24, 2012, when she was 20 years old, plaintiff brought suit against Shaw, Dora Schools, and Dora Schools superintendent Steve Barron under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1871, and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. She later sought to amend her complaint to add additional parties and claims. On defendants’ motion, the district court dismissed the claims as time-barred, denied the amendments to the complaint as futile, and dismissed without prejudice the state court claims. Plaintiff appealed.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment. The Tenth Circuit evaluated applicable statutes of limitation for the federal claims, noting that § 1983 does not contain a statute of limitations. It therefore evaluated local state statutes of limitations, and decided that New Mexico’s three-year statute of limitations for tort personal injury claims under § 1983 applied. Because of her minority at the time of the abuse, plaintiff would have been given one extra year after achieving majority in which to file suit, but she did not file until she was 20 years old. Plaintiff argued that the statute should have been further tolled due to alleged incapacity. However, she brought forth no evidence of incapacity and was a college student pursuing a biology degree at the time of the appeal, evidencing an ability to manage her own affairs. Plaintiff also argued that the limitations period was tolled because she did not realize the extent of her psychiatric injury until 2012. This argument failed as well, since under Supreme Court precedent in Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384 (2007), the common-law tort claim closest to plaintiff’s injuries was battery, and the statute of limitations would have begun to run in early 2007, when the last incident occurred. Plaintiff erroneously relied on the “discovery rule,” which delays accrual of a claim until the discovery of the claim, stating that she did not discover the extent of the damage until 2012. However, quoting Wallace, the Tenth Circuit noted that the cause of action accrues even though the full extent of the injury is not known or predictable, because if it were otherwise, “the statute would begin to run only after a plaintiff became satisfied that he had been harmed enough, placing the supposed statute of repose in the sole hands of the party seeking relief.” Wallace, 549 U.S. at 391.

Plaintiff also alleged that the district court erred by dismissing her state court claims without prejudice instead of remanding them, but the Tenth Circuit noted that the district court properly exercised its discretion under 28 U.S.C. § 1367, and that she would have had 30 days in which to bring her claims in state court after they were dismissed in federal court. Finally, plaintiff contends that the district court erred by denying as futile her motion to amend. Because her claims were time-barred and plaintiff failed to present any argument as to why the amendments would not be time-barred in her opening brief, the Tenth Circuit found no error.

The judgment of the district court was affirmed on all counts.

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