Edited by: Charles Redfield

Latrice Rubenstein v. Doe No. 1 et al.

SUPREME COURT OF CALIFORNIA, 3 Cal.5th 903 (August 28, 2017)

Code of Civil Procedure §340.1(a) provides that an action for damages suffered as a result of childhood sexual abuse must be filed “within eight years of the date the plaintiff attains the age of majority or within three years of the date the plaintiff discovers or reasonably should have discovered that psychological injury or illness occurring after the age of majority was caused by the sexual abuse, whichever period expires later.” Where the action is against an entity that employed or supervised the individual perpetrating the abuse, the action cannot be filed after the plaintiff’s 26th birthday unless the entity “knew or had reason to know, or was otherwise on notice, of any unlawful sexual conduct by an employee, volunteer, representative, or agent, and failed to take reasonable steps, and to implement reasonable safeguards, to avoid acts of unlawful sexual conduct in the future by that person….” Civ. Proc. Code §340.1(b)(2).

The issues in this case are whether the changes to CCP §340.1 provide a new accrual date for purposes of Government Code §901’s claims presentation rule [whether the late accrual rule applies to public entities] and whether a 2012 claim concerning child molestation which allegedly occurred from 1993 to 1994 was timely against the public entity? The Supreme Court concluded that while CCP §340.1 extends the time during which an individual may commence a cause of action alleging childhood sexual abuse, it does not extend the time for accrual of that cause of action. The Supreme Court found that the claim for child molestation was not timely filed against the public entity.

In a previous case, Latrice Rubenstein (“plaintiff”) sued Doe No. 1 et al. (“defendant”), a public entity, alleging that from 1993 to 1994, when she was a high school student, her cross-country and track coach, who was defendant’s employee, sexually molested her. She alleged that latent memories of the sexual abuse resurfaced in early 2012, when she was 34 years old. In 2012 she filed a claim under the Government Claims Act with the defendant public entity, but defendant denied the claim as late filed. Later that year, plaintiff filed a complaint against defendant in Imperial County without the required certificates of merit from a licensed mental health practitioner showing there is a reason to believe that plaintiff suffered childhood sexual abuse. Plaintiff dismissed that case.

Plaintiff then filed an action in San Diego County with the certificates of merit as to Doe 1 and an individual not named in the complaint. She also filed a petition for relief under Government Code §946.6. The trial court granted the petition. However, the trial court later granted defendant’s motion to change venue to Imperial County. After the case returned to Imperial County, defendant demurred to the complaint. In lieu of opposing the demurrer, plaintiff filed a first amended complaint. Defendant again demurred, and the trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend on several grounds, including a finding that plaintiff’s failure to comply with the procedural hurdles of CCP §340.1 within 30 days of the order granting her Government Code §946.6 petition rendered her claim against defendant fatally time barred. The trial court dismissed the action. Plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, the Appellate Court concluded that the delayed accrual rule of CCP §340.1 applies to claims against public entities and also delays the six month period for filing a government claim. The Appellate Court reversed the judgment of dismissal and remanded the case to the trial court for direction to enter an order sustaining the demurrer with leave to amend.

Thereafter, defendant petitioned to the Supreme Court for review. The Supreme Court disagreed with the reasoning of the Appellate Court. The Supreme Court held that although the cause of action had been revived for purposes of the statute of limitation, the claim against the public entity remained untimely. The plaintiff’s causes of action against the School District were barred by expiration of the time for presenting a claim to the School District

The Supreme Court’s decision explained that, subject to exceptions listed in Government Code §905, “before suing a public entity, the plaintiff must present a timely written claim for damages to the entity.” Compliance with the claim requirement is a condition precedent to suing the public entity. The government claim presentation deadline is not a statute of limitations.

The public policies underlying the claim presentation requirement of the government claims statute support the Supreme Court’s decision. Specifically, requiring a person allegedly harmed by a public entity to first present a claim to the entity, before seeking redress in court, affords the entity an opportunity to promptly remedy the condition giving rise to the injury, thus minimizing the risk of similar harm to others. It also permits the public entity to investigate while tangible evidence is still available, memories are fresh and witnesses can be located. The notice requirement is based on recognition of the special status of public entities, because their acts or omissions are alleged to have caused harm which could incur costs that must ultimately be borne by the taxpayer.

The Supreme Court held that while CCP §340.1 extends the time during which an individual may commence a cause of action alleging childhood sexual abuse, it does not extend the time for accrual of that cause of action. The Court reasoned that it was unlikely that the Legislature also intended revival applicable to a person who discovered a new injury attributable to the same predicate facts underlying a cause of action previously barred by a failure to comply with the government claims statute.

The Supreme Court distinguished between statutes that postpone the accrual date for an action and statutes that temporarily suspend the running of a statute of limitations without affecting the accrual date. The court confirmed its decision in Shirk v. Vista Unified School District (2007) 42 Cal.4th 201 (Shirk), where it held that like a tolling statute, CCP §340.1 does not postpone the date of accrual. In other words, statutes of limitations do not begin to run until a cause of action accrues. A cause of action accrues at “the time when the cause of action is complete with all of its elements.” Here, plaintiff’s cause of action had accrued at the latest in 1994, the time of the last alleged molestation. CCP §340.1 did not allow the cause of action to reaccrue.

The Rubenstein court held that ““[I]f adult psychological injury were a separate injury giving rise to a cause of action accruing upon discovery of the connection between the adult injury and childhood abuse, presumably Shirk should have been litigated and resolved differently.” The Court stated that causes of action accrue for childhood sexual abuse at the same time for the purpose of claims against public entities under the government claims statute and for the purposes of an ordinary civil action. But if the plaintiff’s adult psychological injury were a separate injury giving rise to a new cause of action with its own accrual date, then the plaintiff would not have to rely on the one-year revival period of subdivision (d).

The Court reasoned that public policies behind the claim presentation requirement as reasoned in Shirk are equally applicable here. Specifically, permitting a claim made in 2012 for molestation that allegedly occurred from 1993 to 1994 would contravene those policies. A public entity cannot plan for a fiscal year if it may be subject to an unknown and unknowable number of ancient claims like this one. It is probably too late today to meaningfully investigate the facts behind the claim and reach reliable conclusions: Even if some investigation is still possible, a claim timely filed in 1993 or 1994 would certainly have been easier to investigate and would have allowed for more reliable conclusions.

Recent legislation has enacted Government Code §905, which provides exceptions to the government claims requirement. The new subdivision (m) of Government Code §905 added another exception: “Claims made pursuant to §340.1 of the Code of Civil Procedure for the recovery of damages suffered as a result of childhood sexual abuse.” Because the subdivision applies only to claims arising out of conduct occurring on or after January 1, 2009, this amendment does not apply here.

Keeping all of the principles in mind, the Supreme Court concluded that while CCP §340.1 extends the time during which an individual may commence a cause of action alleging childhood sexual abuse, it does not extend the time for accrual of that cause of action.

COMMENT

This decision holds that the extended statute of limitations contained in Cal. Civ. Proc. §340.1 does not change the claims requirements set forth in Government Code §901.

For a copy of the complete decision, see: Rubenstein v. Doe No. 1

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