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J. M. v. Oregon Youth Authority

Supreme Court of Oregon

January 17, 2019

J. M., Respondent on Review,
v.
OREGON YOUTH AUTHORITY, a state agency; and Gary Lawhead, individually, Petitioners on Review, and Richard HILL, individually; and Frank James Milligan, individually, Defendants.

          Argued and submitted September 13, 2018

          On review from the Court of Appeals.[*] (CC 14C15773) (CA A162416)

          Peenesh Shah, Assistant Attorney General, Salem, argued the cause and fled the briefs for petitioners on review. Also on the briefs were Ellen F. Rosenblum, Attorney General, and Benjamin Gutman, Solicitor General.

          Dennis Steinman, Kell, Alterman & Runstein, LLP, Portland, argued the cause and fled the brief for respondent on review. Also on the brief was Scott J. Aldworth.

          Kristian Roggendorf, Vial Fotheringham LLP, Lake Oswego, fled the brief for amici curiae National Center for the Victims of Crime and Oregon Trial Lawyers Association.

          Before Walters, Chief Justice, and Balmer, Nakamoto, Flynn, Duncan, and Nelson, Justices, and Kistler, Senior Justice pro tempore. [**]

         [364 Or. 233] The decision of the Court of Appeals is affirmed. The judgment of the circuit court dismissing plaintiff's section 1983 claim against defendant is reversed, and the case is remanded to the circuit court for further proceedings.

         Case Summary:

         Defendant moved for summary judgment on plaintiff's 42 USC section 1983 claim, arguing that it was untimely commenced. The trial court granted the motion, relying on the purported federal rule that a section 1983 claim accrues when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the injury. The Court of Appeals reversed, relying on a decision of this Court stating the accrual rule differently.

         Held:

         An action under section 1983 accrues when a plaintiff knows or reasonably should know of the injury and the defendant's role in causing the injury. Thus, the trial court applied the incorrect rule of law in considering when plaintiff's claim accrued for purposes of defendant's motion for summary judgment.

         The decision of the Court of Appeals is affirmed. The judgment of the circuit court dismissing plaintiff's section 1983 claim against defendant is reversed, and the case is remanded to the circuit court for further proceedings.

          [364 Or. 234] NAKAMOTO, J.

         Sixteen years after he had been sexually abused by an Oregon Youth Authority (OYA) employee, plaintiff initiated this action. At issue on review is plaintiff's 42 USC section 1983 claim against defendant Lawhead, former superintendent of the OYA facility where the abuse had occurred. Plaintiff alleged that defendant had violated his federal constitutional rights through deliberate indifference to the risk that the OYA employee would sexually abuse youths housed at the facility. The trial court granted defendant's motion for summary judgment on plaintiff's section 1983 claim on the basis that the claim accrued at the time of the abuse in 1998 and, consequently, was untimely commenced. The Court of Appeals reversed, relying on T. R. v. Boy Scouts of America, 344 Or. 282, 181 P.3d 758, cert den, 555 U.S. 825 (2008). J. M. v. Oregon Youth Authority, 288 Or.App. 642, 406 P.3d 1127 (2017).

         We allowed defendant's petition for review to address when plaintiff's cause of action under section 1983 accrued.[1]That issue is determined by federal law, which in turn is derived from common-law tort principles. Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384, 388, 127 S.Ct. 1091, 166 L.Ed.2d 973 (2007). Applying federal law, we hold that an action under section 1983 accrues when a plaintiff knows or reasonably should know of the injury and the defendant's role in causing the injury. Therefore, the trial court erred by dismissing plaintiff's claim in reliance on the principle that a section 1983 claim accrues when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the injury alone, which, in this case, it determined was necessarily when the abuse occurred. Accordingly, we affirm the decision of the Court of Appeals, reverse the judgment of the trial court, and remand the case to the trial court to reconsider its summary judgment decision under the correct accrual standard.[2]

         [364 Or. 235] I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On review of a trial court's grant of summary judgment, we view the evidence and all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. ORCP 47 C; Jones v. General Motors Corp., 325 Or. 404, 408, 939 P.2d 608 (1997). We therefore recite the following facts-which defendant also accepts as true for purposes of summary judgment-in the light most favorable to plaintiff.

         In 1998, plaintiff was 15 years old and housed at an OYA facility where defendant was the superintendent. An OYA employee at the facility named Milligan, who served as a "group life coordinator" or "corrections officer" to plaintiff and other male youths at the facility, sexually abused plaintiff multiple times. The abuse occurred in the laundry room of the tent cottage to which plaintiff was assigned, an area unmonitored by security cameras. Milligan told plaintiff that no one would believe him if he reported the abuse. Milligan threatened to cut plaintiff's visitation time with family if he tried to report. Milligan also threatened to break plaintiff's neck if he screamed. Plaintiff did not report the abuse to anyone at OYA, and he was released back to his family in 1999.

         Initially, plaintiff repressed thoughts and memories of the abuse. But in June 2012, media coverage of the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State University caused plaintiff to recall his own abuse by Milligan. Plaintiff disclosed the abuse to his wife and others for the first time and began searching the internet for information about Milligan. Plaintiff learned that, while still employed by OYA, Milligan had been arrested in 1999 for sexually abusing a boy and then soon after was arrested and charged with kidnapping, sexually abusing, and attempting to murder another boy[3] Both later in 2012 and thereafter, plaintiff learned [364 Or. 236] information indicating to him that defendant had played a role in enabling Milligan's abuse of him at the OYA facility. In May 2014, plaintiff brought a section 1983 claim against defendant for failing to address the known threat of sexual abuse posed by Milligan, alleging violations of his liberty interests in bodily integrity and to be free from sexual abuse under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and of his right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

         Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing, inter alia, that plaintiff's claim was time-barred by Oregon's two-year statute of limitations generally applicable to tort claims, ORS 12.110(1).[4] Defendant asserted that the federal accrual rule as articulated by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals controls when the statute of limitations begins to run on a section 1983 claim. Under the Ninth Circuit rule, defendant argued, the claim accrues when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the injury that is the basis of the action. Plaintiff countered that the issue is controlled by the "discovery accrual rule" that this court had articulated in T. R., which provides that the statute of limitations does not run as to a defendant until the plaintiff discovers both the injury and the defendant's causal role in the injury[5]The trial court concluded that it was bound by federal precedent and that plaintiff's claim was untimely under the accrual rule as articulated by the Ninth Circuit; therefore, it granted defendant's motion for summary judgment.

         Plaintiff appealed, assigning error to the trial court's rejection of this court's precedent in favor of Ninth Circuit case law. Defendant did not dispute that Oregon trial courts are bound by this court's precedents; instead, defendant argued that the trial court did not err in light of the decision in Wallace. According to defendant, Wallace mandates an occurrence-based accrual rule that is "facially inconsistent" [364 Or. 237] with the discovery accrual rule that this court discussed in T. R. and necessarily controls as a United States Supreme Court decision. Consequently, defendant urged, the trial court correctly concluded that plaintiff's claim accrued when he suffered the abuse in 1998, well outside the applicable limitations period. While acknowledging that Wallace controls, the Court of Appeals determined that "Wallace does not preclude a discovery rule in all section 1983 cases," and it reversed the trial court's grant of summary judgment. J. M., 288 Or.App. at 647.

         II. ANALYSIS

         On review, defendant contends that the Court of Appeals' reading of T. R. is inconsistent with Wallace. Defendant advances two alternate articulations of the post-Wallace accrual rule. First, defendant argues that Wallace announced a standard accrual rule focused on the occurrence of the injury: The limitations period for a section 1983 claim begins when the injury occurs, and the rule excepts only certain special types of torts, and plaintiff's claim does not fall within one of those exceptions. Alternatively, defendant argues that, even if the standard accrual rule incorporates a discovery requirement, that requirement extends to discovery of only the injury, not discovery of a particular defendant's causal role as well, as T. R. holds. Defendant asks us to overrule T. R.-or to clarify and limit its holding-in light of Wallace and to affirm the trial court's dismissal of plaintiff's section 1983 claim. As discussed below, we reject both of defendant's proposed accrual rules and reaffirm T. R.'s holding that a section 1983 claim accrues when a plaintiff knows or reasonably should know of the injury and the defendant's role in causing the injury.

         A. United States Supreme Court Case Law

         Because federal law governs accrual for section 1983 claims, we begin our analysis by reviewing the two United States Supreme Court cases on the issue: Wallace and Manuel v. City of Joliet, ___US, ___137 S.Ct. 911, 197 L.Ed.2d 312 (2017). Those cases advise that the accrual rule conforms in general to common-law tort principles, but they do not clarify whether that rule contains a discovery [364 Or. 238] component. We understand the Court's cases to require a ...


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