Suing on Borrowed Time: The Appropriate Statute of Limitations in Federal Civil Rights Cases


Linda S Mullenix

3 Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases 75


This article previews the issues and arguments in Owens & Lessard v. Okure, on the Supreme Court’s 1988-89 appellate docket. The issue presented is whether a federal court in a federal civil rights action must borrow a state's most general personal injury limitations period, rather than the limitations period for intentional personal injury, where the statutory scheme provides different limitations for tortious injuries?Statutes of limitation are procedural devices that require a litigant to pursue legal relief within a certain designated time period. Failing to bring a lawsuit within the legislatively determined period results In losing the ability to pursue legal redress of grievances. Statutes of limitation are ancient fixtures of both state and federal procedural law, traceable to the English Limitations Act of 1623.

Statutes of limitation serve to protect litigants and the judicial system from the prosecution of stale claims. The rationale is that the passage of time creates problems relating to loss of evidence, the death of witnesses, faulty memory, and imperfect recollection, as well as the destruction or disappearance of documents. Statutes of limitation embody the notion that it is unfair not to put an adversary on notice of a grievance within a certain time, and that at some point "the right to be free of stale claims comes to prevail over the right to prosecute them." Thus, statutes of limitation represent a legislative judgment that it is fair to expect a plaintiff to pursue a claim within a reasonable time period, and "to protect defendants and courts from having to deal with cases in which the search for truth may be seriously impaired."

The panoply of federal civil rights statutes does not specify the limitations periods in which a plaintiff must pursue relief. Therefore, federal courts typically have looked to state statutes of limitation for the appropriate time period governing a civil rights action. The Supreme Court during the 1980s has repeatedly addressed the issue of the most appropriate state limitations for federal civil rights actions, and in this case the Court will once again revisit and redefine which state limitations statute should control in a private action against government officers. The general problem concerns which statute should apply when the state has more than one limitations period for various actions in tort, especially where statutes distinguish between intentional and unintentional torts.

The federal courts of appeal have disagreed in their interpretations of the Court's instruction to select the one most appropriate statute of limitations. The Fifth, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits have chosen state limitation provisions for specific intentional torts, while the First, Tenth, and arguably the District of Columbia have chosen those provisions which generally apply to personal injury claims. Further, in some circuits such as the Fourth, Eighth, and Ninth, the federal courts have applied the state's general tort provision without any discussion of the state's intentional tort statute of limitations.

It is therefore apparent that notwithstanding the Supreme Court's valiant attempts to clarify the borrowing rules for limitations periods in civil rights actions, the lower federal courts require further, definitive guidance. The need for this clarification is especially compelling since there are at least thirty-three states that have both a general statutes of limitation for personal injury claims and separate provisions defining intentional torts. Because of the variety of statutory schemes and the vagueness of current Supreme Court doctrine, the Court has encouraged rather than reduced collateral litigation on the limitations issue.

The Court is likely to elaborate on the policies underlying the civil rights laws and the problems entailed in pursuing these claims. Legislative history and the practicalities of civil rights litigation argue in favor of a rule for the least restrictive time period to pursue relief. On the contrary, New York and nine other states (as friends of the court concerned with a growing flood of frivilous prisoner complaints) urge a rule which permits selection of a shorter time period to encourage prompt filing of claims. This serves injured parties by redressing particular injuries while benefitting society by deterring similar egregious conduct.

Full Citation

Linda S Mullenix, Suing on Borrowed Time: The Appropriate Statute of Limitations in Federal Civil Rights Cases, 3 Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases 75 (October 3, 1988). View Online