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Ninth Circuit: Washington Civil Rights Suit Not Tolled by State Presentment Statute

by Lonnie Burton

On April 7, 2017, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s denial of a motion to dismiss filed by county defendants who asserted that a former prisoner’s 42 U.S.C. § 1983 lawsuit was time-barred. The appellate court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that a state tort claims statute gave him an extra 60days to file his federal complaint.

Although the Ninth Circuit’s decision did not go into detail regarding the nature of the suit, court records show that Eric Boston was housed in the Kitsap County, Washington jail for six weeks between January and February 2011. Boston’s complaint concerned “injuries he sustained” during that time period, and named Conmed, Inc., a private company contracted to provide medical care to Kitsap County prisoners, as a defendant along with the county.

The issue in the case was whether Boston filed his suit within the three-year statute of limitations. Boston filed a tort claim under RCW 4.96.020 on January 3, 2014, exactly three years after the start of his jail stay. He did not bring suit in federal court until March 10, 2014, more than three years after he was released from jail. However, under RCW 4.96.020, the “applicable period of limitations within which an action must be filed” is tolled during the 60-day period the law provides for the county to respond to a tort claim.

Boston alleged that provision extended his three-year limitations period until April 2014, while the county argued that the state presentment statute was inapplicable to federal lawsuits. The district court agreed with Boston and denied the county’s motion to dismiss. The Ninth Circuit reversed.

In doing so, the Court of Appeals held that while there is no federal statute of limitations and federal courts rely on each state’s laws, RCW 4.96.020 is not a true tolling statute and thus did not extend the three-year limitations period.

A “true” tolling provision is one in which it is unknown when the clock will “start” again, the appellate court said, and where the precipitating act “stopping” the clock is beyond the plaintiff’s control.

RCW 4.96.020’s tolling provisions, however, permit a “plaintiff to unilaterally extend the [limitations] period” by filing a tort claim. Because § 1983 plaintiffs are not required to file tort claims, a decision to do so is completely within the plaintiff’s choice and is therefore “much different than circumstances that traditionally give rise to tolling in other cases,” the Court of Appeals concluded.

The Ninth Circuit remanded the case to the district court with instructions to dismiss with prejudice. See: Boston v. Kitsap County, 852 F.3d 1182 (9th Cir. 2017).

Following remand, the district court dismissed the case in May 2017; the § 1983 claims against Kitsap County and Conmed were dismissed as time-barred pursuant to the appellate ruling, and the court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Boston’s negligence claim because he had raised an identical claim in state court. 

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Related legal case

Boston v. Kitsap County