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Seventh Circuit: Indiana Tolling Provision May Excuse Time-Barred Suit; Rule 12(b)(6) Dismissal Improper

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a district court’s dismissal of an Indiana prisoner’s lawsuit as being time-barred.

In January 2008, Pendleton Correctional Facility prisoner Danny R. Richards began complaining of abdominal pain and blood in his stool. Prison doctors dismissed his complaints, saying he was fine. They were wrong.

When Richards was finally sent to a specialist nine months later, he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. “By then,” however, “it was too late to do anything but excise the colon and attempt some palliation.” Richards underwent three surgeries to remove his colon and construct an ileo-anal pouch.

He filed suit in federal court in December 2010, alleging that prison officials had been deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The defendants moved to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).

Finding that Richards’ claim had accrued no later than October 2008, the district court dismissed his suit because it was filed after the expiration of the two-year statute of limitations based upon state law.

Richards appealed and the Seventh Circuit reversed on August 9, 2012, finding that Indiana law provides a tolling provision for people who are physically incapacitated, which “prevents tortfeasors from escaping liability by injuring victims so badly they cannot sue in time.” Conveniently, the defendants “seem[ed] to be unaware” of the state law tolling provision.

The appellate court held that Richards had alleged sufficient facts to avail himself of the tolling provision when he claimed “that the surgeries disabled him for extended periods, that when he was out of the hospital he was in constant pain and unable to walk, and that he filed suit as soon as he could muster the concentration and energy to do so.” While those allegations “may or may not be true ... they are plausible – and no more is required of a pleading.”

In fact, that was more than Richards was required to allege when defending against a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. “Judges should respect the norm that complaints need not anticipate or meet potential affirmative defenses,” the Seventh Circuit wrote. A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint, not whether an affirmative defense may exist or prevail. Since Richards’ complaint stated a claim upon which relief may be granted, the Court of Appeals held “[i]t could not properly be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6).”

The Seventh Circuit was unimpressed with the district court’s single-sentence declaration, upon dismissing the suit, that “Richards’ explanations for the delay [in filing his complaint] are unpersuasive.”

“That’s it. No other analysis,” the Court of Appeals observed. The district court “did not identify a legal obstacle to the suit; the judge just deemed the allegations ‘unpersuasive.’ But a judge cannot reject a complaint’s plausible allegations by calling them ‘unpersuasive.’ Only a trier of fact can do that, after a trial.”

The appellate court explained that “Once Richards has had an opportunity to produce evidence material to the tolling question, its sufficiency under Indiana law can be tested by a motion for summary judgment.” Before that happens, the Seventh Circuit cautioned, “the district court should consider carefully whether to assist Richards in finding a lawyer who can muster the facts and, if necessary, secure medical experts.” The case was accordingly reversed and remanded. See: Richards v. Mitcheff, 696 F.3d 635 (7th Cir. 2012).

Following remand, the district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on June 25, 2013, finding that Richards’ suit was barred by the statute of limitations. Although Richards had argued that “the time to file his complaint was tolled while he was physically unable to sue despite the exercise of reasonable diligence,” the court held the burden was on Richards to show he met the requirements for tolling.

The district court noted that “Indiana does not recognize incarceration as a legal disability precluding plaintiffs’ ability to bring suit,” and thus the mere fact of Richards’ incarceration was insufficient. Further, because Richards was able to draft letters and submit health care request forms during the time he was suffering medical problems, the court found he was “not excused for failing to comply with the two-year statute of limitations for reasons of [physical] incapacity.”

The district court concluded that “Richards, like many victims of malpractice, are required to ‘engage in litigation while battling their medical condition, fatal or not. That is a decision the legislature has made.’” See: Richards v. Mitcheff, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Ind.), Case No. 1:10-cv-01583-SEB-MJD.

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Related legal cases

Richards v. Mitcheff

Richards v. Mitcheff