Warren v. Alabama Department of Mental Health et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge R David Proctor on 4/6/2017. (AVC)
2017 Apr-06 AM 11:30
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
WAYNE WARREN, by and through his
Mother, next friend and legal guardian,
ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF
MENTAL HEALTH, et al.,
Case No.: 7:16-cv-01666-RDP
This case is before the court on the Motion to Dismiss (Doc. # 6) filed by Defendants
Alabama Department of Mental Health (“ADMH”) and Estate of Perry Walker (“the Estate”).
The parties have fully briefed the motion. (Docs. # 9, 11, 16-17). This motion presents the issue
of whether the court may be compelled to apply a state statute of limitations but disregard a
directly relevant tolling provision for that statute of limitations, based on the court’s finding that
the tolling provision is inconsistent with the purposes of federal law. Surprisingly, ADMH, an
Alabama state agency, is asking the court to selectively apply state law. The court concludes that
it cannot. Accordingly, for the reasons explained below, Defendants’ motion to dismiss (Doc. #
6) is due to be denied.
Procedural Background and Relevant Facts
In October 2016, Plaintiff filed a complaint against Defendants ADMH and the Estate.
(Doc. # 1). The complaint charges that ADMH violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and
the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). (See id. at ¶¶ 34-49, 71-74). Moreover, ADMH
allegedly committed negligence or wanton conduct by failing to protect Plaintiff from harm. (See
id. at ¶¶ 75-78).
Plaintiff alleges that Perry Walker, a mental health worker at Partlow
Developmental Center (“Partlow”), deprived Plaintiff of his constitutional liberty interest in
personal safety and bodily integrity, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Id. at ¶¶ 26-33). Plaintiff
also presents state law claims of outrage, assault, negligence, and wantonness against the Estate,
along with an ADA claim. (See id. at ¶¶ 66-78).
According to the complaint, Plaintiff “suffers from mild to moderate retardation” and has
an IQ score in the 50s. (Id. at ¶ 4). Plaintiff resided at Partlow before it was closed. (Id. at ¶ 6).
While living at Partlow, Plaintiff shared an apartment with another patient, referred to as R.G.
(Id. at ¶¶ 12, 17). On April 2, 2005, R.G. threw feces at Walker. (Id. at ¶ 20). In response,
Walker instructed Plaintiff to assault R.G., and Plaintiff punched R.G. in the face. (Id. at ¶ 21).
Walker’s instruction to Plaintiff allegedly violated Partlow Policy 19-10 and constituted abuse,
exploitation, and mistreatment. (Id. at ¶ 22). ADMH is alleged to have violated its own policies
by failing to report Walker’s assault instruction to the Alabama Department of Human Resources.
(Id. at ¶¶ 24-25).
Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss all claims in this action as time barred. (Doc. #
6 at 2-3). Defendants note that neither the Rehabilitation Act nor the ADA has an independent
statute of limitations. (Id. at 2). As such, those claims are subject to the most analogous statute
of limitations under Alabama law: the two-year statute of limitations for personal injury actions.
(Id.). That statute of limitations also applies to Plaintiff’s negligence, wantonness, and outrage
claims. (Id.). A six year statute of limitations applies to Plaintiff’s assault claim. (Id.). As
Defendants note, the incident at issue occurred over eleven years before this action was filed, well
outside of the ordinary limitations periods. (Id. at 3).
Plaintiff responds that this case falls under the tolling provisions of Alabama Code
§ 6-2-8(a) because of his mental incompetence. (Doc. # 9 at 1). ADMH petitioned the Probate
Court of Tuscaloosa County to appoint a legal guardian for Plaintiff in February 2005. (Id. at 2).
In April 2005, the probate court found that Plaintiff was incapacitated because of his intellectual
disability and appointed Plaintiff’s mother as his guardian. (Id. at 3). Plaintiff argues that
Section 6-2-8 tolls the statute of limitations for all claims brought by him for twenty years because
he has been mentally incapacitated for his entire life. (Id. at 5). He notes that the court’s
application of the tolling provision is not affected by the appointment of a guardian for him. (Id.
at 4-5) (discussing Emerson v. S. Ry. Co., 404 So. 2d 576 (Ala. 1981)). As this case was filed
eleven years after the incident in question, Plaintiff requests that the motion to dismiss be denied.
(Id. at 7).
Defendants’ reply brief does not contest Plaintiff’s claim that his disability qualifies him
for tolling under Section 6-2-8(a). (See Doc. # 11 at 3-4 n. 2). Defendants’ reply also withdraws
their earlier request to dismiss all claims in this action as untimely. (See id.). Rather, Defendants
now argue that the state tolling provision in Section 6-2-8 does not apply to the federal law claims
in Plaintiff’s case (i.e., the claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Rehabilitation Act, and the ADA).
(Id. at 5). In support, Defendants cite a case from the former Fifth Circuit, Miller v. Smith, 615
F.2d 1037 (5th Cir.) (“Miller I”), amended on rehearing, 625 F.2d 43 (5th Cir. 1980) (“Miller II”).
(Id. at 3-4). Relying on Miller I, Defendants insist that the court should not apply the tolling
provision in Section 6-2-8 because it is inconsistent with the purposes of Section 1983, the
Rehabilitation Act, and the ADA. (Id. at 5). This is so because “the filing of this action so long
after the alleged event in question . . . accomplishes very little, if anything, with respect to
addressing or vindicating the Plaintiff’s civil rights.” (Id.). Moreover, Defendants argue that
Plaintiff’s guardian could have brought this suit earlier. (Id.).
Standard of Review
A statute of limitations defense is an affirmative defense, and a plaintiff is not obligated to
negate a timeliness defense in his or her complaint. La Grasta v. First Union Securities, Inc., 358
F.3d 840, 845 (11th Cir. 2004). “A Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal on statute of limitations grounds is
appropriate only if it is facially apparent that the claim is time-barred.” Baker v. Sanford, 484 F.
App’x 291, 292 (11th Cir. 2012).
Defendants argue that the federal claims in this suit are time-barred, notwithstanding the
complaint’s allegations of Plaintiff’s intellectual disability. The court disagrees.
The federal statutes pursuant to which Plaintiff is asserting claims (42 U.S.C. § 1983, the
Rehabilitation Act, and the ADA) do not contain independent statutes of limitations; therefore,
those claims are governed by the most analogous state statute of limitations. In this case, the most
analogous limitations period is Alabama’s two-year statute of limitations for personal injury
actions. See Ala. Code § 6-2-38(l) (“All actions for any injury to the person or rights of another
not arising from contract and not specifically enumerated in this section must be brought within
two years.”). Thus, the statute of limitations in Alabama for Section 1983 claims is two years.
Owens v. Okure, 488 U.S. 235, 249-50 (1989) (holding that Section 1983 actions are governed by
the residual or general personal injury statute of limitations in states with more than one statute of
limitations). And, the statute of limitations in Alabama for Rehabilitation Act claims and ADA
claims is also two years. Everett v. Cobb Cty. Sch. Dist., 138 F.3d 1407, 1409-10 (11th Cir. 1998)
(adopting the state’s statute of limitations for personal injury actions to ADA and Rehabilitation
Alabama law includes a disability tolling provision for its civil statutes of limitations.
If anyone entitled to commence any of the actions enumerated in this chapter . . . is,
at the time the right accrues, below the age of 19 years, or insane, he or she shall
have three years, or the period allowed by law for the commencement of an action
if it be less than three years, after the termination of the disability to commence an
action, make entry, or defend. No disability shall extend the period of limitations
so as to allow an action to be commenced, entry made, or defense made after the
lapse of 20 years from the time the claim or right accrued.
Ala. Code § 6-2-8(a).
The Alabama Supreme Court has emphasized that “[s]ection 6-2-8
demonstrates legislative response to the need to protect individuals suffering under certain
disabilities.” Emerson, 404 So. 2d at 578. In accordance with that purpose, the Alabama
Supreme Court has held that the tolling provision applies even if, as in this case, the injured party is
represented by a guardian or representative who does not fall within the protection of Section
6-2-8. Id. at 579 (“These cases demonstrate the fact that the right of action resides in the injured
party and not in the guardian or representative. . . . It is clear to us . . . that failure on the part of
the representative to file or pursue this claim within the limitation period does not bar recovery
where § 6-2-8 is applicable.”).
Here, accepting all well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint as true and construing
the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, it is not facially apparent that Plaintiff’s claims are
time-barred, given Alabama’s generous tolling provision for individuals suffering from
intellectual disabilities.1 Defendants’ argument that the court should disregard Alabama’s tolling
provision when considering the timeliness of Plaintiff’s federal claims cuts no ice. The former
Fifth Circuit case cited by Defendants concluded that the application of a Texas tolling provision
for imprisoned individuals would frustrate the intent of Section 1983 to provide effective
vindication of constitutional rights. Miller I, 615 F.2d at 1042. The former Fifth Circuit held
that a prisoner’s limitations period should be tolled for the time that he lacked unimpeded access to
the federal courts, but should not be tolled for the period where he was imprisoned and had free
access to the federal courts. Id. However, the Miller litigation did not end there. Following the
Supreme Court’s opinion in Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York v.
Tomanio, 446 U.S. 478 (1980), the Miller panel granted a petition for rehearing and essentially
reversed its holding from Miller I. Miller II, 625 F.2d at 44. In light of Tomanio, the Miller
panel held that “the prisoner was entitled to the benefit of a Texas tolling statute according to its
express terms.”2 Id. Likewise, Plaintiff is entitled to benefit from Section 6-2-8(a)’s tolling
provision according to its express terms, not according to Defendants’ selective, result-oriented
invocation of state law.
For the above reasons, Defendants’ motion to dismiss (Doc. # 6) is due to be denied. An
order consistent with this opinion will be entered.
Notably, Defendants have decided to not contest whether Plaintiff is eligible for statutory tolling of the
limitations period due to his intellectual disability at this time. (Doc. # 11 at 3-4 n. 2).
The Supreme Court’s subsequent opinions on borrowing analogous state law statutes of limitations
support Miller II. In Hardin v. Straub, the Supreme Court held that a Michigan state law tolling provision for
prisoners was not inconsistent with Section 1983 and should be applied to toll the limitations period for Michigan
prisoners. Hardin v. Straub, 490 U.S. 536, 543-44 (1989). The Hardin Court cautioned against “unravel[ling] state
limitations rules unless their full application would defeat the goals of the federal statute at issue.” Id. at 539.
DONE and ORDERED this April 6, 2017.
R. DAVID PROCTOR
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?