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Oregon: Knowledge of Injury and Defendants’ Causal Role Required for Accrual of § 1983 Claims

by Mark Wilson

unanimous Oregon Supreme Court held on January 17, 2019 that a claim that prison officials were deliberately indifferent to the risk of sexual abuse by a guard at a juvenile facility accrued when the plaintiff knew or reasonably should have known of his injury and the role of prison officials in causing it. 

In 1998, a juvenile offender identified only as J.M. was incarcerated at the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn, Oregon. Unfortunately, Frank James Milligan worked as a guard and “group life coordinator” at MacLaren at that time.

Milligan sexually assaulted J.M. on several occasions and coerced his silence by telling him that nobody would believe him if he reported the abuse; he also threatened to deny J.M. his family visits and said he would break his neck if he screamed. J.M. did not report the abuse and was released in 1999.

He repressed his thoughts and memories of the abuse until seeing media coverage of the Penn State University sexual abuse scandal in 2012. J.M. then began searching the Internet for information about Milligan.

He learned about Milligan’s horrific abuse of other children. Milligan was arrested in 1999 for sexually abusing another prisoner at the MacLaren facility. Then, while still employed by the Oregon Youth Authority (OYA), he abducted a young boy from a park, drove him to a secluded field, molested him, choked him unconscious, slashed his throat and left him for dead in July 2000. His victim survived. Milligan was ultimately convicted of attempted murder and sexual assault; in 2001, he was sentenced to 30 years. 

Beginning in 2012, J.M. discovered information that led him to believe that OYA officials had played a role in enabling Milligan’s abuse. J.M. filed suit in state court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in May 2014, seeking $5.5 million. He claimed the OYA defendants acted with deliberate indifference to the risk that Milligan would sexually abuse children at MacLaren. 

The state ultimately indicted Milligan on several charges stemming from his sexual assault of J.M. He pleaded guilty to two counts. Finding that he deserved a sentence “as long as the court is allowed to impose,” in September 2015 Milligan was ordered to serve 35 years in prison, consecutive to his previous sentence, ensuring he would be over 100 years old before becoming eligible for release.

Despite that outcome, OYA officials moved for summary judgment in J.M.’s case, arguing his suit was time-barred because his claims accrued when he was aware he had been sexually assaulted in 1998. J.M. argued that his claim did not accrue until he discovered both his injury and the defendants’ role in causing it. The trial court sided with the defendants, finding that J.M.’s claim was untimely, and granted the summary judgment motion.

The Oregon Supreme Court unanimously reversed. 

“Because federal law governs accrual for section 1983 claims,” the Court first studied the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions regarding accrual issues in Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384, 127 S.Ct. 1091 (2007) and Manuel v. City of Joliet, 137 S.Ct. 911 (2017). “Wallace and Manuel stress that the issue of accrual of section 1983 claims is primarily guided by common-law tort principles, with consideration given to the functionality and flexibility of the approach and the constitutional rights at issue,” the Court wrote. “That guidance does not support defendant’s ... reading of Wallace as strictly precluding a discovery rule and compelling a rule that accrual occurs at the time of the injury unless a special exception applies.” 

Turning to its own precedent, the Oregon Supreme Court noted that it had previously held in T.R. v. Boy Scouts of America, 344 Ore. 282, 181 P.3d 758 (Ore. 2008) that a claim accrues with perception of the injury and the defendant’s role in causing it. “Contrary to defendant’s argument,” the Court found that “T.R’s holding ... is consistent with the Supreme Court’s guidance in Wallace and Manuel.”

The Court then considered the defendants’ argument that accrual decisions of lower federal courts supported their knowledge-of-injury-only accrual rule. “As the parties recognize, there is a range of viewpoints among those courts,” the state Supreme Court noted. Following an extensive analysis of those divergent opinions, the Court adhered to its holding in T.R., finding that “a rule that requires a plaintiff to bring a claim without any regard for the plaintiff’s knowledge of whom to sue is neither functional nor flexible.” 

The Oregon Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment, finding it had applied an incorrect rule of law. “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,” the Court concluded. See: J.M v. Oregon Youth Authority, 364 Ore. 232, 434 P.3d 402 (Ore. 2019). 


Additional source: The Statesman Journal

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Related legal case

J.M v. Oregon Youth Authority