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9th Circuit: Equitable Estoppel Applies Where Fraudulent Concealment by Police Thwarts Filing of Claim within Statute of Limitations Period

The Ninth Circuit has held that the doctrine of equitable estoppel can save a claim brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against an otherwise-applicable statute of limitations bar, where although a plaintiff believes she has a cause of action, she is dissuaded from timely filing as the result of affirmative misrepresentations and stonewalling by the defendants (in the case, the police).

In March 2000, Jerry Amaro was arrested after purchasing crack cocaine from an undercover officer in a drug sting operation conducted by the Oakland Police Department (OPD). While being transported to the jail, Amaro complained of pain in his ribs and requested medical attention. He was later given Motrin.

Released from custody after just five days, Amaro informed his mother that he had been beaten by OPD police officers and that, despite his requests, he had been denied medical treatment. When he was examined by a private doctor, it was discovered that Amaro had sustained five fractured ribs and a collapsed lung. Three days later, while staying with a friend, Amaro died as a result of his injuries.

When Amaro's death was investigated by OPD homicide officers, evidence of his beating at the hands of OPD police officers was uncovered. The police not only withheld this information from Amaro's mother, they lied to her about the circumstances of his death (saying he had died "in the street" as the result of a gang dispute over drugs).

More than eight years later, the FBI launched an investigation into allegations of excessive force by OPD police officers. When details emerged regarding the true circumstances surrounding Amaro's death, as well as an alleged post-arrest cover-up orchestrated by Sergeant Gus Galindo, the commanding officer of OPD's drug sting operation in 2000, Amaro's mother filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that OPD's use of excessive force during Amaro's arrest, and the subsequent denial of medical treatment, caused Amaro's death.

The defendants moved to dismiss the claim, and later for summary judgment, on the ground that it was time-barred under the applicable two-year statute of limitations. Applying the doctrine of equitable estoppel, the district court denied both motions, holding that the defendants should not be allowed to benefit from their wrongdoing.
On interlocutory appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's rulings. See: Estate of Amaro v. City of Oakland, 653 F.3d 808 (9th Cir. 2011).

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Related legal case

Estate of Amaro v. City of Oakland