A Third Circuit Statute of Limitations Case: Accrual, the Continuing Violation Doctrine and Equitable Tolling
In a much-read post of October 27, 2011, entitled A Section 1983 Primer (5): Statutes of Limitation, I blogged about statutes of limitations in section 1983 cases. There I briefly discussed the complicated issues of (1) choosing the right state statute of limitation, (2) accrual of section 1983 claims and (3) when section 1983 claims are tolled.
Subsequently, in my post of June 17, 2013, entitled A Section 1983 Primer (10): Statutes of Limitation and Accrual After Heck v. Humphrey, I discussed the special accrual rule of Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), that applies where the plaintiff has a prior conviction whose validity might be implicated by a successful section 1983 damages action.
Then, in my post of June 9, 2014, entitled A Section 1983 Primer (11): Statutes of Limitation and Continuing Violations, I discussed the continuing violation doctrine and quoted Judge Posner‘s useful statement of that doctrine.
This post addresses Montanez v. Secretary Pennsylvania Dept. of Corrections, 773 F.3d 472 (3rd Cir. 2014), amending and superseding, 763 F.3d 257 (3rd Cir. 2014), which has something for almost everyone on accrual, the continuing violation doctrine and equitable tolling.
The Montanez Case
In Montanez, the plaintiff inmates sued corrections officials under section 1983 alleging that the department of corrections violated procedural due process through the automatic deduction of funds from their inmate accounts to cover court-ordered restitution, fines and costs. Their arguments were that they should have been provided by the department with some notice of the policy and an opportunity to be heard prior to the first deduction and, also, that the current procedures were insufficient.
The Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the complaint of one of the inmates on the ground that it was time-barred under Pennsylvania’s two year limitations period. The inmate’s claim accrued when the defendants began deducting funds from his account on April 6, 2000 (which he knew about), but he only filed his lawsuit on November 29, 2004. At the very latest his claim accrued when he filed a grievance challenging the deductions on November 17, 2002.
The Third Circuit went on reject the inmate’s continuing violation doctrine argument because he was aware of the relevant injury shortly after it occurred. Furthermore, even though the defendants continued to make deductions thereafter until 2010, when the inmate’s debt was satisfied, their “decision to enforce the … policy against [plaintiff] and its first deduction from his prison account constituted a discrete and independently actionable act, which triggered [his] obligation to assert his rights.”
Finally, the Third Circuit rejected plaintiff’s equitable tolling/fraudulent concealment argument based on Pennsylvania law. There was no fraudulent concealment here but, even if there was, the allegedly fraudulent statements of the defendants were made in response to grievances he filed more than two years after his cause of action accrued. “[Plaintiff] simply delayed too long to take advantage of equitable tolling doctrines.”
1. Accrual: In Montanez, the Section 1983 claim accrued under the applicable federal law of accrual–the discovery rule– when the inmate first knew of the injury to him and who likely caused it, which was on April 6, 2000 or, at the latest, on November 17, 2002.
2. The Continuing Violation Doctrine: Even though the effects–the continuing deductions–of the defendants’ allegedly unconstitutional act lasted for approximately 10 years, that was not enough to constitute a continuing violation. The focus for this purpose was on the first discrete act, namely, the first deduction on April 6, 2000.
3. Equitable tolling/fraudulent concealment: It is important to understand that under applicable Supreme Court precedents, the forum state’s tolling law governs section 1983 claims. And that tolling law includes not only formal tolling law set out in the forum state’s statutes but also state tolling law that is not statutory, such as equitable tolling and/or fraudulent concealment.
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